Last stop before Paris

15 October 2015

From 19-23 October 2015, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will gather in Bonn for a UN climate meeting. It is the last chance to solidify as many details as possible about an anticipated global climate change treaty, due to be finalised in Paris in December. But the latest draft barely touches on a major but highly controversial source of greenhouse gas emissions: land use.

Emissions from land use are typically produced by deforestation and agricultural plantations, distinguishing them from emissions produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Land use emissions are proportionally higher in developing countries than in highly industrialised countries. These differences need to be dealt with in an equitable way in the climate negotiations.

The first (and so far only) global climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, only included emissions targets for  the most industrialised countries, but in the Paris agreement it is hoped that both developing and developed countries will accept obligations. So far developing countries have only agreed to voluntarily reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and have largely been opposed to mitigation commitments for agriculture.

A matter of accounting

Industrialised countries that are Parties to the Kyoto Protocol have targets for limiting emissions from land use (including forest activities) and agriculture. The EU is keen to include existing land-use accounting rules (which dictate the method for calculating whether or not countries are meeting their emissions targets) in this new agreement.

However there are well-documented problems with the existing rules, such as the use of projected baselines, which allow countries to increase emissions while meeting their targets, even though this is potentially disastrous for the climate.

The dangers of ‘net-zero’ emissions targets

While the draft agreement barely mentions land, it does identify “net-zero” emissions as a long-term goal. This apparently laudable language implies using forest plantations and large-scale bioenergy crops to draw carbon out of the atmosphere in order to balance out continued fossil fuel emissions.

“As Fern has previously highlighted, the concept that avoided emissions or removals in the land sector can compensate the continued use of fossil fuels is scientifically flawed. As a policy, it is also a potentially disastrous distraction, if it in any way delays the real action that is needed – a drastic reduction in the rate of fossil fuel consumption. The creation of industrial forest and agricultural plantations also poses a significant threat to biodiversity and food security, particularly when communities’ traditional tenure rights are not respected.

The way forward

To be equitable and ambitious, the Paris agreement  must exclude terms such as net-zero and must not rely on existing land-use accounting rules. It must highlight the importance of forests and land for food security and biodiversity, and recognise land tenure for indigenous peoples and local communities.

[This article has been corrected to remove the suggestion that CO2 emissions are to all intents and purposes permanent and cannot be drawn out of the atmosphere.]

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