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What did the Paris Agreement say about forests?


The “Paris Agreement” has received widespread praise. Many have also sounded a note of caution: there is much to do to achieve its goals. But few have explained the outcomes for forests, so here are a few highlights.

First, what did we need Paris to do on forests?

Deforestation and the land sector are responsible for one quarter of global GHG emissions. So there is a big problem to fix.

At the same time by reversing this unsustainable land use and maximising the potential for forests to absorb carbon we could achieve around one third of the emissions savings we need to avoid dangerous climate change. And forests can help communities adapt to climate change, for example by providing a flood risk reduction mechanism. So there is a big opportunity to seize.

Implementing REDD+ activities can help seize this opportunity. Though such activities, developing countries would be financially rewarded for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.”

Although the science makes this clear and some countries are acting, we still needed a clear political signal coming out of the agreement in Paris that forests are at the heart of our global plan to tackle climate change and therefore must be central to national plans too.

Forest conservation can play a huge part on tackling climate change. © IUCN, WWF and Climate AdvisersForest conservation can play a huge part on tackling climate change. © IUCN, WWF and Climate Advisers

What did we get from the negotiations?

In the end the Paris Agreement included a standalone article for forests, including REDD+. “Article 5” encourages all Parties, developed and developing countries, to take action to conserve and enhance emissions sinks and reservoirs, including forests. It also encourages countries to “take action to implement and support, including through results-based payments” REDD+ activities. I welcome in particular the reference in Article 5 to non-carbon benefits which REDD+ programmes have significant potential to deliver in support of sustainable development. The overarching COP “decision” that Annexes the Paris Agreement also recognised “the importance of adequate and predictable” finance for REDD+ activities.

Although the ‘rules of the game’ for REDD+ were already agreed – thus legitimising and ‘regulating’ REDD+ activities – the political signal of Article 5 is very important. It shows forest nations that this is a long-term game. This in turn will give them the added confidence to continue with REDD+ strategy and readiness activities. It will also, hopefully, help bring more donors to the table. Still, something stronger than “encourage” and “support” here would have been more commensurate with the gap between the finance needed and finance currently on offer.

Forests and the land sector were implicit in some other important clauses too. Perhaps most notably the pivotal reference to the importance of “removals by sinks of greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century” to rapidly reduce global emissions after they peak “as soon as possible.” The transparency clause also makes clear that removals by sinks must be included in national emissions inventories. This puts forests and land sector at the heart of global effort to keep “global average temperature [rise] to well below 2 °C” and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.”

Underpinning the Paris Agreement were the nationally determined contributions. A WWF study analysed 75 submissions from developing countries and emerging economies with relevant forest cover. It found that the vast majority include forests in one way or another. The most common targets we found in this review, are related to afforestation/reforestation, and pledges to maintain and/or increase their forest cover.

What about outside the negotiations?

The first few days of the COP, including the ‘forests day’ were awash with announcements. It was extremely important that outside the negotiations governments and non-state actors showed that they weren’t waiting for the Paris Agreement to kick in by 2020 to take action. Our ability to avoid dangerous climate change depends on that.

Forests offer a huge opportunity in that regard. Avoiding deforestation achieves immediate climate benefits, with a host of co-benefits. As does restoring degraded land and forests. And the emissions saving potential is massive.

A study we supported IUCN and Climate Advisers to publish at the COP calculated the size of the forest opportunity. We found that if just 12 forest countries met their existing forest goals (as in their nationally determined contributions) this would cut annual global climate emissions by 3.5 gigatonnes in 2020 – equivalent to the current total annual emissions of India and Australia put together. If international support were to enable even higher ambition to achieve near zero forest loss in these countries by 2020, this would save nearly 5 gigatonnes a year – as much as India and Australia plus Japan’s annual emissions.

The size of the forest opportunity to increase our global ambition. © IUCN, WWF and Climate AdvisersThe size of the forest opportunity to increase our global ambition. © IUCN, WWF and Climate Advisers

We at WWF were looking for practical action from governments and businesses to capitalise on this opportunity. As well as the declaration signed by leaders and ministers of 17 countries reiterating their commitment to work together to reverse deforestation, there were many initiatives to celebrate in particular on the ‘forests day’. I’ll highlight three of those initiatives here, which I think are particularly significant.

First, the partnership launched between Colombia, Germany, Norway and UK to support Colombia’s ‘Amazon Vision’ for zero net deforestation and in moving towards a national REDD+ approach in this mega-biodiverse country. This is significant as the first multi-donor results based deal. It is also significant because it shows how political ambition from a forest nation can be rewarded. And it showcases the kind of partnership that we need more of to grab the forest opportunity.

Second, the statement from Germany, Norway and UK (again) that said that, dependent on countries coming forward with “ambitious and high quality proposals”, they will “provide $1 billion per year by 2020, or … over $5 billion in the period 2015-2020” for REDD+ activities. This is significant because it speaks to the need for “adequate and predictable” finance for REDD+. It is also significant, unfortunately, because of the absence of other donors. As Jonah Busch highlighted, Australia announced a new initiative on forests without indicating the finance to back it up. While, the United States and Japan pledged no new forest finance at all, despite signing the leaders statement I mentioned earlier.

So more finance is needed. We need more government investment for all preparatory and enabling activity, but also we need to also find more and better ways to leverage private finance.

That’s why the third outcome I will highlight is the statement made by M&S and Unilever (co-chairs of the Consumer Goods Forum) that they will preferentially buy agri-commodities from areas that have “designed and are implementing jurisdictional forest and climate initiatives”. This was a quiet but essential signal that supports the wider economic case for implementation of REDD+ and could be another source of “predictable” investment getting us closer to “adequate.”

What does all this mean?

We have examples of what we need to do. We just need more of them, from a wider set of actors.

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