NY Times: Delegates at Climate Talks Focus on Saving the World’s Forests

By JUSTIN GILLIS — LE BOURGET, France — The climate deal being negotiated here is meant to begin a transformation of the world’s energy systems, but it has another goal that has received far less attention: a sweeping effort to save the world’s forests.

Dozens of countries put forests at the center of the plans they submitted ahead of the conference, near Paris. As the talks began, more than 60 heads of state emphasized their commitment to forest conservation.

If a deal is reached this week and the plans go into effect in 2020, these nations — particularly tropical countries that are home to the richest diversity of plant and animal life — will have committed themselves to sharp reductions in deforestation, and in some cases to ending it entirely.

The improper clearing of forests “is an environmental crime,” the Brazilian minister of the environment, Izabella Teixeira, said in an interview here. “If I have a crime, this is not acceptable.”

In the negotiations, delegates are finishing a tortuous, decade-long effort to create rules to encourage developing countries to preserve their forests.

The last of those rules have been in near-final form for months, and they were formally approved on Thursday at the meeting in Le Bourget. Forests are also likely to be mentioned briefly in the main document being negotiated here. The completion of that broader climate deal could give extra momentum to the forest countries’ plans after 2020.

Funds are already flowing to bridge the gap until that happens. As the conference began, Britain, Germany and Norway pledged $5 billion for forest conservation in poor countries through 2020, and challenged other rich countries to step up.

“We believe it is crucial to have forests and forest protection” to meet international climate goals, Michael Huettner, a manager with the German Environmental Ministry, said in an interview here.

Developing countries have made clear that the more financial help they get, the more they will be able to do to conserve their forests. They say they need the money not only to tighten their law enforcement, but also to create economic development that could draw poor people away from illegal logging and land clearing.

“If I had one bag of money, I’d be giving it to the Brazilians and the forest countries to sort themselves out,” said Andrew Mitchell, executive director of the Global Canopy Program, a forestry think tank in Oxford, England. “It’s demonstrably faster and cheaper than anything else we could do.”

Several national delegations here — including Brazil’s — said they intended to act on their forest plans regardless of the language in the final agreement. That reflects a growing recognition that ending forest loss, and allowing forests to regrow in some places where they were chopped down, are essential to limit the risks of global warming.

Forests are simultaneously a potential cause of global warming and a potential solution. Healthy forests suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, helping to reduce the warming from human emissions. But forest destruction throws enormous amounts of it back into the air, worsening the problem.

The warming and drying of the climate may in itself kill forests, as is already occurring in the United States and elsewhere, so broad efforts to limit climate change are needed to ensure the continuing role of forests in preserving a livable planet.

“We need to achieve these ambitious goals on forests, or we’ve lost the chance to win on climate,” Nigel Purvis, the president of Climate Advisers, said in an interview in Paris. His Washington consulting group has worked intently on the issue.

The Paris commitments from numerous countries cap an extraordinary two years of efforts to conserve the remaining intact forests of the world.

Many Western corporations have lately signed pledges to clean up illegal deforestation in their supply chains, after resisting calls to do so for decades. Public opinion has turned sharply in many poor countries that hold large forests, in favor of saving what their citizens are coming to see as a profound natural heritage.

And yet, tens of billions of dollars a year of illicit profits are still made through land grabs and illegal logging. Only a small fraction of the global market in commodities is covered by the recent corporate pledges.

The major success so far has occurred in Brazil, which managed to reduce Amazon deforestation by 80 percent over a decade. That was achieved mainly through tough law enforcement, with Brazilian activists and prosecutors sometimes risking their lives to save the forest, but also through pressure from Western consumers and environmental groups.

The gains are considered fragile and at risk of reversal; Brazil reported a 16 percent jump in deforestation last year. In an interview in Paris, the governor of the huge Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, Pedro Taques, said that farmers needed more incentives to cooperate, including higher prices for commodities produced sustainably. That is starting, but is still in the early stages.

“We are winning some battles, but we are not where we would like to be,” Francisco de Oliveira Filho, who heads the Brazilian government’s effort to tackle deforestation, said in an interview at the climate conference. “The war is still to be won.”

Brazil is a clear success, though, compared with Indonesia, with continuing, rampant destruction of forests that are home to orangutans, critically endangered tigers and many other creatures.

Immense fires this year, caused in part by past industrial exploitation of the forests, have sent a toxic haze wafting over Southeast Asia, causing a public health crisis in Indonesia and infuriating neighboring countries.

Western companies long bought paper and palm oil — an ingredient in thousands of consumer goods ranging from ice cream to lipstick — that had been created by destroying Indonesian forests. But lately, activist groups have used tools like social media campaigns, genetic tracing of ingredients, and more to push these companies to change.

Activists for the Rainforest Action Network, for instance, used genetic testing in 2011 to assert that Disney, the world’s largest publisher of children’s books, was receiving paper made from improperly logged wood in Indonesia.

“The very creatures Disney features in its classic film ‘The Jungle Book’ are threatened by the paper Disney’s children’s books are printed on,” the group said in announcing its findings.

After activists dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse blocked entrances to the company’s headquarters in Burbank, Calif., and unfurled a huge banner, Disney agreed to talk. The company has since adopted one of the toughest forest-preservation policies in the publishing industry.

Versions of that story have played out at many other companies, which explains why they have been issuing a torrent of commitments in recent years. Now, forest advocates are focused on holding them to their words, with many of the necessary verification and monitoring systems still being established.

If a final deal is agreed to this week in Le Bourget, it would commit countries to going well beyond these recent efforts.

As of now, experts say that perhaps $10 billion a year is flowing into forest conservation worldwide, but at least twice as much is needed to cut deforestation in half, one of the goals of a declaration signed by companies and governments at an international conference in New York last year.

In drafts of the broad Paris agreement, countries are still tussling over the exact language about forests, but many of them want to see at least a mention, mainly as a political signal that forest conservation should receive a high priority in the world’s future efforts on climate.

Assuming some version of the forest language does get in, “After 10 years, this idea to protect forests is going to be embedded into international climate law,” said Gustavo A. Silva-Chávez, a program manager at Forest Trends, a Washington group, who is monitoring the Paris talks. “That’s a very big deal.”

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