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Updated: Durban deforestation agreement promotes transparency, scientific verification

Screen Shot 2011-12-04 at 9.21.54 PM.pngClimate negotiators in South Africa struck a preliminary deal on forestry over the weekend, advancing a technical document that lays out what could be the first real ‘rules of the road’ for initiatives that seek to reduce greenhouse gases by curbing deforestation in tropical countries.

First, a little necessary background. Deforestation is responsible for roughly 15% of global carbon emissions, and the idea is that some of the money spent on reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions could be funneled into forest-protection programmes. As envisioned, such initiatives would reduce emissions while preserving biodiversity, protecting freshwater resources and putting some money in the pockets of the rural poor. Pretty much everybody likes the idea, but to make it happen, we first need baselines so that all parties agree on how many trees are coming down — and, more importantly, how much carbon dioxide is going up.

This is where the new agreement comes in. Among other things, the language proposed by a technical working group on Saturday says that developing countries must calculate their baselines in terms of carbon-dioxide emissions — as opposed to hectares — and then submit them for a kind of international peer review before they become final. Assuming the language moves forward, both requirements would increase transparency and make it easier for scientists, investors and other countries to verify the numbers.

“It’s the best thing that has been done since Bali,” says John O. Niles, director of the Tropical Forest Group in San Diego, referring to the 2007 climate talks in Indonesia that formally put deforestation on the agenda. “Before countries would submit reference levels, but now the text says countries will submit proposed reference levels,” he adds. “That one word makes a huge difference.”

In UN-speak, the concept is known as REDD, for ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’, and it has been one of the few bright spots in difficult negotiations in recent years. Environmentalists say that the new agreement could have gone further to spell out various environmental and social safeguards, but there was nonetheless a collective sigh of relief after a week of difficult negotiations that went down to the deadline.

This is just a first step.

REDD can’t go anywhere within the UN climate system unless countries can mobilize monetary resources to make it happen, and that means progress on forestry could once again fall prey to disagreements about how to raise and spend the money — ramping up to US$100 billion annually by 2020 — that industrialized countries have committed to help developing countries deal with climate. At least for now, however, all of the major action on REDD is taking place through bilateral partnerships, and many think that the new agreement could lead to an international standard that will apply even outside the UN process. For some background, check out our stories on setting up a REDD system and counting carbon in the Amazon.

As it happens, the Brazilian Amazon has been the topic of much discussion here in Durban. Brazil has made remarkable progress in reducing deforestation over the past several years, but many now fear that the country could be facing a major backslide in the years to come, thanks in part to a rural backlash against the nation’s forest-protection code.

On Tuesday the Brazilian Senate is scheduled to vote on — and presumably approve — new forest-code legislation, and then the question is whether President Dilma Rousseff will use her veto power to eliminate troublesome provisions in the bill. Environmentalists say that the bill could spell disaster in the Amazon, and the Rousseff administration has long opposed the legislation as well. Speaking in Durban, however, Brazilian officials say that the worst provisions have already been removed and argue that the legislation will not affect Brazil’s commitments to reducing deforestation.

For a nice analysis of how all of this might play out, check out the new essay in Conservation Biology by scientists at the Brazilian Amazon Environmental Research Institute. Led by Dan Nepstad, the essay authors call for “systemic conservation” and go on to analyze two possible futures of the Amazon basin. The treatment of carbon proves to be one crucial factor in determining whether we will see an end to deforestation by 2020, or an acceleration of forest destruction.

“Carbon storage by forest trees is the only ecosystem service for which a global market could emerge in the near term,” the authors conclude. “We must seize this opportunity and usher in a new paradigm in rural development that can carry a more systemic approach to conservation into a turbulent future.”

UPDATED: 12/5/2011: Gilberto Camara, director general of the Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the institution that actually tracks deforestation using satellite, wrote to counter fears that passage of the new Forest Code will necessarily lead to destruction of the Amazon. He also said INPE would soon release the official deforestation statistics for this year and hinted that there may be a surprise. More on that in later. Camara’s comments follow:

The new proposed Forest Code is much worse than the current one, no

doubt. However, it does not follow that its adoption will destroy the

Amazon. There is no provision that allows deforestation to rebound on

the Amazon. The new code is a tricky piece of legislation that exempts

the farmers and loggers that cut the forest illegally before 2008 from

being fined and legally prosecuted. However, the new Code also requires

them to recover the forest reserve (with at least 50% native

vegetation). Thus, in practice, there will be an increase on vegetation

in Amazonia if the new Code is applied. Calculations carried out by Ana

Aguiar from INPE point out that by 2015 will become a net CO2 sink.

The approval of the new Forest Code is a sign of the times. For decades,

farmers and loggers destroyed the Amazon without fear of being caught.

The old Code was fully in existence, but there was no real governance in

place to enforce it. From 2004 onwards, the Brazilian government put in

place massive law-enforcement operations that resulted in prosecution of

many illegal deforesters. Then the illegals guys saw they no longer

could count on the impotence of the government.

The battlefield then moved from the Amazon to Brasilia, where the

ruralistas have many more votes than the environmentalists, thanks to

Brazil’s skewed proportional representation system. They have the power

to change the legislation. What followed was a congressional battle not

unlike those in US, where conservatives have the majority.

The final version of the Forest Code is what was possible to achieve,

given the power balance in the Congress. It’s not a good law, but it

does not translate automatically into more deforestation. There are no

provisions in the new Code that allow for it. The Brazilian federal

government has shown that it has the capacity to enforce the law and to

survey the Amazon in detail. The combination of surveillance,

transparency and law enforcement has been responsible for the important

reduction in deforestation. There is no reason to assume that Brazil

will allow this success to be transformed into a major international



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