Leaders from governments, industry, NGOs and indigenous organizations gathered today at the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) to discuss forests, under the banner of the "Lima Paris Action Agenda," an effort launched at last year's climate meeting to mobilize actors beyond government to slow deforestation and restore degraded forest landscapes. Ministers from Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Norway and Peru, as well as senior officials from Indonesia, Guatemala, Liberia, Mexico, Paraguay, the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) shared the stage with private sector, NGO and indigenous speakers. Following on his speech to the opening session of COP21 the previous day, HRH Prince Charles opened the half-day session, reaffirming the centrality of forests to the climate change agenda, and calling for urgent action to implement commitments on the ground. Felipe Calderon, the former President of Mexico, Chair of the Global Commission on Economy and Climate and WRI Board member, provided closing remarks. Frances Seymour of the Center for Global Development served gracefully as chair for the day.
The high level of participation – and overflow crowd – demonstrates that deforestation continues to be recognized as a key source of greenhouse gas emissions that must be addressed as part of the overall package coming out of COP 21. Many speakers also stressed the role forests must play as part of the solution as well, noting the importance of forest landscape restoration and evidence that primary and other mature forests are very effective at absorbing and sequestering carbon.
The previous day’s joint announcement by Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom of $5 billion in support for forests through 2020 pumped a surge of energy and optimism through the participants. If the leaders of forest countries can summon the political will to act, a good deal of the financing needed is already on the table.
Apart from many statements reaffirming the importance of forests in the climate equation, three themes were repeatedly raised.
First, as Brazilian Minister Teixeira most forcefully articulated, making good on forest commitments is fundamentally a political struggle. Passing—and effectively implementing—good laws is a political struggle. Mobilizing funding in the face of competing priorities is a political struggle. Overcoming vested interests who benefit from a high-carbon economy is a political struggle. This is why corporate commitments and NGO monitoring and activism cannot turn the tide by themselves. There are some things that only governments are capable of doing, and it takes skilled politicians to move governments from talk to action.
Second, slowing forest loss is an economic challenge, not just an environmental one. This was stressed by politicians, but also by the spokesperson for the Consumer Goods Forum, a body representing companies with an annual turnover of $3 trillion. He cast the Forum’s commitment to zero deforestation in their supply chains as a core business decision, not just a bow to pressures from environmental groups. A spokesperson from Liberia stressed the acute economic challenge that a poor development country faces in balancing a long-term forest conservation vision with short-term demands for the state to provide the most basic human needs.
Third, the forest-climate agenda requires strong multi-stakeholder cooperation and partnership. When government is weak, corrupt, or just does not care about forests, all the corporate commitments, environmental advocacy, and monitoring in the world will be in vain. But in order for governments to be effective, they need good science and information as the basis for policy, a committed (or at least compliant) business sector, participation by and cooperation with indigenous and local communities, and a robust civil society sector providing transparency and accountability.
Building on the momentum in the air after Monday’s calls to action by world leaders, the forest faction at COP21 seems to be energized and looking forward to a successful outcome that will put the wind in the sails of political and economic reforms at home, and nurture cooperative action on the ground.
The challenges should not be underestimated, though, and countries on the rostrum did sweep a good deal under the rug:
Brazil praised its own performance in slowing deforestation over the past decade (which has indeed been solid), and stressed its devotion to the rule of law and science-based policy making. None of the Brazilian speakers, however, alluded to the massive corruption scandal engulfing the current administration and the state oil company, or mentioned the recent data from its own Environment Ministry showing a 16 percent uptick in deforestation over the past year.
Indonesia once again pledged to take stronger measures to rein in the catastrophic peatland and forest fires and resulting toxic smog that has poisoned millions of Indonesians and aggressively invaded neighboring countries. Indonesian representatives did not mention, however, the efforts of some of its palm oil magnates and their cronies in government to undermine bold zero-deforestation commitments made under the 2014 Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge, which was Indonesia’s signal contribution to the September 2014 UN Climate Summit in New York.
Peru did not mention its endemic illegal logging problem (recent reports by the government’s own supervisory agency suggest that most timber in the country is cut illegally), and the ugly public threats of violence against senior forestry officials.
Norway, whose vision and generosity on forest financing is unquestioned, nevertheless missed the chance to note that the level of donor funding is not the main roadblock to protecting forests. Rather, low capacity to effectively use international funding, the lack of enabling policy environments, and widespread corruption and illegal logging in most of the “A-List” REDD+ countries present far more formidable barriers. The standard UN “North-South” rhetoric bemoaning insufficient developed country commitments of forest funding is just that—rhetoric.
Summing up the session, Calderon noted the energy, progress and promise highlighted, and set out some key priorities. First, he noted, progress will require tangible and practical economic incentives. This in turn requires strong political will, greater respect for and implementation of the rule of law, active social participation, the empowerment of women, and, finally, “honest commitments.” Calderon closed with an admonition that can perhaps guide us all through the rest of the Paris COP and the hard work ahead: “No more lies!”