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COP21 Diaries: Building lung capacity

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Forests
Peruvian indigenous people attending a panel on forests at COP21 Peruvian indigenous people attending a panel on forests at COP21 Marco Magrini
02 Dec
Marco Magrini reports for Geographical on daily events at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris

If you want to treat the planet’s fever, one has to begin with the lungs. Tropical forests, from Guatemala to Indonesia, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, are the lungs of the planet. Through the magic of photosynthesis, they feed on carbon dioxide and manage a massive share of the terrestrial carbon cycle. Unfortunately, they are disappearing at a rate of 12 million hectares per year. Deforestation is responsible for 11 per cent of global CO2 emissions: once felled, trees send back into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide they had previously captured. Trees do not only regulate the massive, planetary carbon cycle. They manage oxygen and water cycles as well. In a nutshell, they provide us with life.

At COP21, forests have received a flood of grand pronouncements and moderate financial pledges. ‘We, leaders,‘ reads a statement signed yesterday by the heads of state and prime ministers of 17 countries, both rich and poor, ‘recognise the essential role forests play in the long-term health of our planet, in contributing to sustainable development, and in meeting our shared goal of avoiding dangerous climate change. We are committed to intensifying efforts to protect forests, to significantly restore degraded forest, peat and agricultural lands, and to promote low carbon rural development.’

To be a little more prosaic, it is yet another question of money. The rules of climate diplomacy’s game prescribe that industrialised countries – those who have been burning large amounts of fossil fuels for centuries – have to bear the greatest responsibility. This is why Norway yesterday renewed its commitment to Brazil’s Amazon Fund, supporting the world’s most important lung, the Amazon. Germany and the UK also announced an alliance with Colombia, then the same three European nations pledged $1billion a year, by 2020, for countries participating in REDD+ programs (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). In other words, a money flow is guaranteed for those who swear to protect their share of the planet’s lungs.

Trees do not only regulate the massive, planetary carbon cycle. They manage oxygen and water cycles as well. In a nutshell, they provide us with life

According to multilateral commitments made so far, the world aims to halve deforestation by 2020 and erase it altogether by 2030. ‘Still,’ says Marc Bolland, vice president of the Consumer Goods Forum, ‘we might be able to eradicate the problem much earlier, say, in 2020.’ Bolland is not an environmentalist, but rather Marks & Spencer’s CEO. The Consumer Goods Forum, he says, brings together companies like ‘Nestle and Unilever, Coca Cola and PepsiCo, Tesco and Carrefour, which together generate $3trillion in earnings per year and want to be part of the solution’. This could be buying only certified palm oil, for example, or by signing partnerships with tropical countries and, according to Bolland, ‘sharing our solutions with small and medium-sized enterprises, so that they can also apply them’.

‘This is a crucial point,’ Marco Lambertini, general director of WWF International, tells me. ‘The commitment of big corporations is genuine. Thanks to their size, they have the power to make changes. The real question, however, is how to involve the farmers and small companies, which still represent locally the majority of trade, production and land use.’

REDD+’s results are mixed. So far, $9.8billion has been pledged, much less than the initial estimates. Yesterday, a coalition of indigenous communities held a conference here to protest against the ‘colonialist approach’ that ends up interfering with traditions and daily life in the villages. Brazil claims to have reduced deforestation by 70 per cent over the past decade, but recent satellite measurements show that the destruction has picked up force in recent times. Finally, it remains to be seen whether the could-be Paris agreement will include REDD+ in the final text or not.

In addressing COP21 delegates in Paris, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the People’s Republic climate mitigation programs include an increase in the forest stock of 4.5 billion cubic metres by 2030. However, trees have inevitably also become a bargaining chip, not only for the tropical nations of Latin America, Central Africa and Southeast Asia. During his speech, Vladimir Putin has implicitly stated that if Russia is one of the biggest world producers of oil and gas, it makes the world breathe with its immense endowment of forests.

Ask any physician. You don’t want to meddle with lung health.

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