The Ministerial Katowice Declaration on Forests for the Climate, issued by the Polish presidency to the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP24), contains many welcome elements; these may yet be undone by its more ominous context.
The Forest Declaration underscores the key role forests must play in limiting temperature rise to 1.5˚C, and highlights the need to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. It refers to the need to reach global peak emissions quickly, and begin rapid reductions in accordance with the best available science, mindful of concerns of equity, sustainability and efforts to eradicate poverty. Particularly welcome is that indigenous peoples and local communities, who have borne the brunt of land-grabbing and forced evacuations, are recognised in their role of “conserving and sustainably managing forests for the benefit of present and future generations.” Notably, the Declaration was adopted via an “opt-out” process: everyone was signed on unless they indicated that the wanted to be out.
While the declaration is constructive, the subtext gives cause for worry. COP24 took place in Silesia, Poland’s coal-mining region, and the Forest Declaration follows the Polish presidency’s other high-level declaration: the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration. This stresses the need to shift to low-emissions, climate-resilient economies “while ensuring a just transition of the workforce that creates decent work and quality jobs”. Its tone – deferential to the challenges that such a transition entails for cities, regions, sectors, and the workforce – raises concern that its greater purpose is to constitute a loophole allowing continued reliance on coal.
Recent Polish decisions undermine the transition to a low-carbon future, and seem to justify such worries: the opening of new coal mines, although the majority of Poland’s population wishes to phase out coal and local communities strongly object; the construction of a new state-owned coal power plant, over the objections of the labour union concerned. Notably also, during COP24, Poland hosted the World Bioenergy Forum (5 December, Katowice) and the Biofuture Platform (10 December, Katowice), both of which advocated burning biomass instead of fossil fuels, though this is too often linked to vastly increased logging, and could even be harmful in terms of climate goals.
Against this backdrop, the Forest Declaration’s “pledge to accelerate our actions to ensure that the global contribution of forests and forest products is maintained and further supported and enhanced by 2050” risks being interpreted as supporting these initiatives at the expense of much-needed progress on biodiversity objectives and securing community land rights.
The Forest Declaration should not be used to justify continued burning and combustion of fossil fuels, nor should it serve to justify continued emissions from fossil fuel sectors. Given the current pressure on primary forests in Central and Eastern Europe, including in Poland, the declaration must be interpreted in keeping with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which the declaration welcomes: the report describes the negative effects of increased biomass demand and encourages positively reinforcing activities that achieve climate, biodiversity and sustainable development goals. This would emphasise the vision of an NGO response, which promotes restoration and decreased forest degradation as the best way to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5°C.