12 December 2008

UN poised to agree action to halt rainforest destruction

Britain leads negotiations and pledges £100m to cut impact of deforestation

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor, in Poznan, The Independent, Friday, 12 December 2008

Research shows that deforestation in the Amazon is worse than first thought

Research shows that deforestation in the Amazon is worse than first thought (Alamy)

Britain is brokering the world's first agreement on curbing the enormous contribution tropical deforestation makes to climate change, which is likely to be signed at the UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland, later today.

It will take the form of a statement of intent by countries with large tracts of rainforest, such as Brazil, and concerned developed nations, mainly in Europe, for a joint approach to halting forest destruction.

The removal of tropical forests is responsible for about 18 per cent of all the carbon dioxide emissions causing global warming – more than all the emissions from the world's transport sector. Huge amounts of carbon stored in trees are released when forests are cleared, especially if the clearance involves burning.

The agreement, which British officials have taken the lead in putting together, comes against a background of research showing that future deforestation in regions such as the Amazon is likely to be far worse than anticipated even in the most recent reports of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In advance of the signing, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, announced at the Poznan meeting yesterday that Britain would contribute £100m to reduce the impact of deforestation on the world's environment. At the same time, Mr Miliband signed a climate change and deforestation agreement with Indonesia, which is the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide from chopped-down trees. In fact, Indonesia's deforestation emissions are so great they make the country the third-biggest carbon emitter globally, after China and the US. Deforestation emissions put Brazil in fourth place in the carbon dioxide league.

Recognition of the importance of the effects of slashing and burning trees came for the first time at the previous UN climate conference held in Bali, Indonesia, a year ago, when it was agreed that the issue of emissions from deforestation would have to be part of the new global deal on climate change which the world community hopes to strike in Copenhagen next December.

The Poznan meeting is beginning the negotiating process for Copenhagen and earlier this week the grouping of 189 countries (and 10,000 delegates) reaffirmed that deforestation and carbon was still an important part of the deal. But the specific agreement to be signed today goes much further and engages a much smaller, key group of nations to design explicit strategies to tackle the problem.

One of the most important will be to set up ways of accurately measuring, reporting and verifying deforestation rates. This is because a vital incentive for tropical countries to preserve their forests intact may be to allow them to gain "carbon credits" for avoided deforestation, which can then be sold on the world's burgeoning carbon markets; but such credits will only have value if they are regarded as genuine.

The idea of the carbon market saving the rainforests was set out in detail two months ago in a report to the Government by Johan Eliasch, a businessman who is an environmental adviser to Gordon Brown, and the Eliasch report is very much behind the effort that British officials have been putting into brokering today's agreement.

Mr Miliband made it clear yesterday that be believes flows of funds to the rainforest countries will be the essential mechanism to halt deforestation. "It is the global carbon market that can be used to give forest countries an incentive to reduce their deforestation rates," he said. "That's the big potential prize."

Asked what British taxpayers should think about giving £100m at a time of severe economic stress, Mr Miliband said: "Given that emissions from deforestation are 18 per cent of the total, if we don't do something about them, then events such as we saw in my constituency [Doncaster North] a year ago, with terrible flooding, will happen more often. There is a direct social and economic interest in this for people in Britain, as well as the moral interest of saving the planet."

Mr Miliband will sign the statement of intent on Britain's behalf today. As it was still being negotiated last night, there was a reluctance to name the participants in case any should drop out, but it is likely to be a group of about 15 countries, probably including Brazil, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and some African countries on the rainforest side, and Britain, France, Germany and Norway and others among the developed countries who would eventually be the purchasers of forest carbon credits.

The effect of it will be to get the whole process, which is known in the jargon as Redd – reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation – up and running before Copenhagen, to give it a much better chance of figuring strongly in the ultimate deal.

An added sense of urgency comes from research showing that predictions of deforestation rates by the IPCC are likely to be greatly exceeded. Scientists from the UK Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research said yesterday that with no controls on deforestation, the area of forest lost in the Amazon by 2050 could be five times greater than in the current IPCC scenario – more than two million square-kilometres, as opposed to the current prediction of 435,000 sq km – and even with effective governance, the loss could be more than double, at 913,00 sq km.

Hadley Centre researchers consider that deforestation rates may be magnified by the risk of fire as the Amazon dries out with higher temperatures and decreasing rainfall.

* Senator John Kerry, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 who is leading a US congressional delegation at Poznan, said yesterday that the President-elect, Barack Obama, might call a conference of world leaders during 2009 to give impetus to the negotiating process leading up to the Copenhagen climate summit next December.


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