What does the Paris climate agreement mean for forests and forest peoples’ rights?

1 January 2016

Written by: Kate Dooley

"The unquestioned reliance on negative emissions to deliver on the Paris goals is the greatest threat to the Agreement”

Kevin Andersen

There is no doubt the Paris climate agreement was a historic moment and an achievement of international diplomacy. The overall objective has been strengthened from “below 2C” in the Cancun Agreements, to “well below 2C and pursuing 1.5C”.

The prominence of 1.5C in the Paris outcome, bringing with it increased awareness of the impacts and threats of climate change, is a welcome step forward in global ambition. The challenge now is to harness the sense of optimism that Paris engendered to actually bring about an “end to the fossil fuel era” as some commentators have described it.

But what role do forests play in this, and what does the Paris Agreement mean for forests and forest peoples' rights?

As has been widely noted, currently pledged national commitments (as described in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) do not add up to achieve the aspiration set out in the agreement; indeed, they put us on track for at least a 2.7C temperature rise. Much work is still needed at the national level to increase ambition, meaning that national level movements and climate campaigns will play a crucial role going forward.

However, the main danger of the Paris Agreement is that it defers action to the future, by failing to usher in the immediate and steep emission reductions necessary to achieve the temperature goal, relying instead on removing carbon from the atmosphere at a later date.

Delaying action in this way runs the risk not only of locking in higher levels of warming if carbon removal (known as negative emissions) proves unfeasible, but would also require large tracts of land, with significant impacts on food security, land rights and vulnerable communities.

Long-term global goal

The key clause in the Paris Agreement is the long-term mitigation goal (Article 4.1.) [1], which enshrines the concept of reducing global emissions to zero in the second half of this century, although the wording leaves room for interpretation.

The long-term goal was one of the most intense areas of debate in the negotiations, with earlier versions of the text phrasing the concept of bringing emissions to zero in different ways, and under different timeframes.

The US favoured decarbonisation by the end of the century, in line with the G7 statement from earlier in 2015. The EU and Norway supported ‘net-zero’ emissions, although this terminology was strongly opposed by much of civil society due to the fact that a ‘net’ approach does not bring emissions to zero, and the risk that a focus on sequestration by sinks will lead to land grabs. India and many other developing countries were not happy to accept new and undefined terminology such as net-zero, and instead wanted reference to the global carbon budget, which featured in the most recent IPCC Assessment.

With no agreement on any of these terms, ambiguous wording was chosen: to achieve “a balance between anthropogenic sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gasses in the second half of this century.”

But what does this actually mean? Because forests and other vegetation naturally sequester carbon, and because this terrestrial carbon pool has been depleted through deforestation and land clearing, the goal refers to the fact that increased sequestration can remove emissions from the atmosphere.

A ‘balance’ effectively means the same as net-zero – that anthropogenic emissions from any sector will be compensated for by the same level of (anthropogenic) removals. Given that in some sectors, such as agriculture, it will be impossible to bring emissions to zero, this ‘balance’ will be required to stabilize atmospheric emissions, although it is how quickly and how deeply fossil emissions are reduced that will ultimately determine the level of temperature rise.


However, the long-term goal, and indeed much of the Paris Agreement, could also open the door to a form of geoengineering, known as carbon dioxide removal (CDR), if large-scale monoculture plantations or bioenergy crops with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) were used to remove significant volumes of carbon from the atmosphere.[2] Research indicates forest plantations or BECCS could require between half and twice the world’s arable land area.[3]

Land use on this scale would have significant impacts on food security, as well as land rights and livelihoods. Removing carbon from the atmosphere through restoring natural ecosystems, on the other hand, could have positive impacts on biodiversity, food security and land rights if developed with these interests at the forefront, but is physically limited in scale to the extent we have previously depleted the land carbon stock, as well as current uses of land.

In addition to the threats to land rights, food security and biodiversity, relying on negative emissions poses another major risk: delaying action in the next few critical decades on the assumption that emissions can be removed at a later date will lock in higher levels of warming if negative emissions technologies prove to be unfeasible, or the sequestered carbon is later released to the atmosphere (through deforestation or large-scale die-back).

It is important to note that Article 4.1 qualifies that the long-term goal must be achieved “on the basis of equity and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”. This requirement could be interpreted as ruling out options that threaten food security, livelihoods and rights - such as large-scale bioenergy or monoculture plantations.

Taken together, the full wording of Article 4.1 implies reducing emissions to near-zero around the middle of the century, which would include halting forest loss, with sustainable and beneficial levels of sequestration, such as via ecosystem restoration.

Forests in the Paris Agreement

Article 5 anchors forests in the Paris agreement. In Article 5.1, parties are required to take action to conserve and enhance natural ecosystems [4], including forests.

The explicit referencing of forests in the new agreement was intensely debated. The Coalition for Rainforest Nations [5] wanted language that would establish or secure financing for REDD+, while other countries did not want any reference at all to REDD+, given that all decisions, including the methodological framework and the safeguards information system had already been agreed in the Warsaw Framework for REDD+. Brazil had also long opposed a binding international treaty on forests, and did not want any language on REDD+ in the new agreement.

This debate resulted in Article 5.2, which ‘encourages’ parties to implement and support the existing REDD+ framework. It also puts non-market approaches to forests, known as ‘joint mitigation and adaptation’ (JMA) on a par with results-based payments for REDD+, and reaffirms the importance of non-carbon benefits.

This paragraph anchors the importance of forests for mitigation in the new agreement (both through results-based payments and alternative policy approaches), but does not introduce any new finance commitments, pledges or financing channels for REDD+, beyond the general provisions for climate finance in Article 9.

There was much discussion and debate over ‘land-use during the negotiations, but ultimately the word ‘land’ does not appear anywhere in the text. This was largely due to concern from developing countries over taking on mitigation obligations in the agricultural sector, where food security remains an overriding priority.

Yet the land sector is indirectly included through multiple references to removals, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gasses throughout the agreement – land being the only sector where emissions as well as removals are managed and reported for climate mitigation purposes.

Throughout the decision text and agreement there is language recognising the importance of ecosystems and multiple uses of land and forests. The preamble to the Agreement recognises safeguarding food security as a priority; the integrity of ecosystems and the protection of biodiversity; and sustainable patterns of production and consumption (linking to one of the key drivers of deforestation).

Human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are included in the preamble to both the Agreement and the decision text, with paragraph 136 establishing a knowledge exchange platform on traditional knowledge and Article 7 (on Adaptation) referencing ecosystems, livelihoods and traditional knowledge. In addition, the Sustainable Development Goals are explicitly referenced in the preamble.

While there is no reference to peoples’ rights or land tenure in the core agreement, the preamble language guides interpretation of how the articles of the Agreement are to be implemented. Hence, the accounting guidance for parties’ nationally determined efforts (requested to be developed in paragraph 31) will need to ensure that actions to address climate change do not threaten ecosystem integrity, food security, human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Carbon markets

Article 6 of the Agreement, despite not mentioning the word markets, establishes guidance for international trading between domestic carbon markets, as well as a new offsetting mechanism.

Article 6.2 refers to internationally transferred mitigation outcomes, requesting guidance to be developed by 2020 (paragraph 37) for parties to be able to trade their mitigation outcomes to count as progress towards their climate targets (nationally determined contributions).

This establishes UN oversight and approval for the international transfer of credits, which has long been under discussion at the UNFCCC, but had previously faced significant opposition from Venezuela, Bolivia, China and Brazil, among others.

Article 6.4 establishes a sustainable development mechanism (SDM), which will operate as an offset mechanism, where parties (and private entities) can sell emissions reductions to another party. This is expected to replace the existing UN offset scheme – the Clean Development Mechanism, with rules, modalities and procedures to be developed before 2020 (paragraph 38).

It should be clear by now that whatever different opinions people hold on carbon markets, there is simply no room in the carbon budget for offsetting. The continuation of project-based offsetting, where emission reductions in one place allow continued emissions elsewhere has no place in a world aiming to limit temperature rise to 1.5C or even 2C.

Assistance is needed to allow developing countries to shift to low-carbon development paths, but this should be done through providing climate finance, technology transfers and capacity building.

Articles 6.8 and 6.9 refer to non-market approaches, establishing a work programme for a framework to consider the linkages and synergies between mitigation, adaptation and the provision of support (paragraph 40). This work programme will likely see discussions on both REDD+ and the JMA.

While there is nothing in the Paris agreement that promotes the inclusion of forests or land-based offsets in future carbon markets, this debate is not off the table.

With the mandate to develop rules and guidance for the new market mechanisms referring to emissions sources and removals by sinks, and the overall framing of the mitigation goal being to balance emissions with removals, the inclusion of forests and land will be under discussion, but the new rules should permanently close doors to using the land to offset continued fossil fuel use.  

There is an increasing recognition of the fundamental difference between biological carbon and fossil carbon, and of the need to address carbon sequestration outside of carbon markets, such as through adaptation and policy based approaches.


The main message coming out of Paris is that it is time for the world to act, by ending fossil fuel use within a few decades. Richer countries will need to take the lead on this, with the German Advisory Council on Global Change(WGBU) calling for the EU to set an example and increase its reduction target from 30 per cent to 40 per cent by 2020.

Essential to meeting the 2C or even the 1.5C target is conserving and enhancing natural ecosystems. This means both ending the destruction of natural forests, and restoring degraded and destroyed forests and other ecosystems.

Any use of forests to delay action in phasing out fossil fuel use (through offsetting or accounting rules that allow land-based sequestration to compensate for ongoing fossil emissions) will risk overshooting the temperature goal.

Similarly, relying on ‘negative emissions’ in the future, through industrial monoculture plantations or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, would have disastrous consequences for food security, undermining goals to eradicate poverty, and risking much higher levels of warming.

Respecting and securing the rights of forests peoples to their lands is essential to achieving ecosystem integrity and the protection of biodiversity, which are key to the fight against climate change.


[1] Note that the Paris outcome consists of a decision text, and a core Agreement. The key difference here is that the Agreement is legally binding and will be ratified by national governments, hence the language must be durable, while the decision text, which adds further specifics to many agreement articles and mandates for the elaboration of rules, can be superseded by subsequent decisions. In this article, when referencing a paragraph it is in the decision text, and when referencing an Article it is in the core Agreement.

[2] While there is no agreed definition of geoengineering, the scale of the intervention is a key defining element. Fern would argue that removing carbon from the atmosphere at an industrial scale, sequestering more carbon than was previously lost through land use change and deforestation, whether through plantations or bioenergy crops, would qualify as geoengineering.

[3] Many estimates for land area suggest 500 million - 3 billion ha. Arable land is estimated at 1500 million ha.

[4] The reference to Article 4, paragraph 1(d) of the Convention is a reference to all natural ecosystems.

[5] The Coalition for Rainforest Nations is a coalition of around 40 tropical forest nations with a secretariat in New York City.

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