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COP-19 and Forests – Why Big Progress on This Front, but Less on Others?

Jon Strand's picture

Last month’s global climate talks in Warsaw may be remembered mainly for progress on programs for Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), the UNFCCC mechanism for payments to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in low-income countries. Seven key decisions were agreed related to REDD+: on finance; reference levels; measuring, reporting and verification (MRV); safeguards; forest monitoring systems; institutional arrangements; and addressing drivers of deforestation. Additional funding of $280 million toward implementation of an extended REDD+ agenda was secured, coming mostly from Norway, but with contributions from the United Kingdom and the United States too.

Global forest losses in rainforest regions close to the Equator today represent close to 20% of net global greenhouse gas emissions, although the share has recently been falling slightly mainly due to less deforestation in Brazil. The target is now to reduce tropical countries’ forest losses to half by 2020, and eliminate such losses completely by 2030. It is encouraging that wider agreement seems to be forming on this issue.

Without doubt, progress on the REDD+ agenda has been greater than for other types of climate-related emissions. This raises an interesting question: Why is it easier to gain agreement on measures for common, international, action to save tropical rainforests, compared to other agreements for limiting greenhouse gas emissions?

In my view the answer relates to the nature and magnitude of co-benefits from action. Essentially, protecting rainforests in tropical regions, such as the Amazon, central Africa and Asia, serves to protect a wider range of values, apart from the direct climate-related benefits resulting from carbon preserved in standing forest. Also at stake are: enhanced global biodiversity; protection of the livelihoods of indigenous populations living in and off rainforests; protection of locally important ecosystems services; and the potential for eco-tourism. Such features are likely to be valued by populations of higher-income countries, as well as populations in the countries where significant rainforests are found.  These values are likely to have some impact on decision makers in all these groups of countries. 

No similar magnitude of co-benefits to rich countries are likely to follow from other aspects of climate-related policy in developing countries. For example, consider agriculture over which parties failed to reach agreement in Warsaw. There are few obvious co-benefits to richer countries from better climate-related agricultural management in certain poorer countries. Much more of this benefit is related to climate impacts through reduced emissions of methane and other climate gases. And we all know that reaching international agreement over issues that only concern climate gases has turned out to be exceedingly difficult. The reasons are well-known: great disputes over actual value of climate action (with still many climate skeptics, and some countries that perhaps think they benefit from warming); the intangible nature of many values (as many climate impacts cannot yet be observed); and timing (significant impacts on climate from current mitigation occur only in the more distant future).

The benefits of conserving rainforests are however far more obvious. In particular, biodiversity benefits, resulting from unique species not going extinct when rainforest is saved, are visible, tangible, and immediate. This makes it also much easier to attach value to protecting rainforests, and to count it as “your own”, compared to the value that can be attached to considerations of “climate policy” where benefits are far more abstract. Since rainforests can be viewed as a global public good, implementing an optimal policy for their conservation will admittedly be challenging. These challenges, however, appear to be far smaller for rainforests than for climate policy more generally.

An ongoing research project in the Development Research Group’s Environment and Energy Team provides estimates of some values from conservation in the Amazon rainforest, the largest and most important such forest representing almost half the global total. Such values are both local and regional, to Amazon region countries; and global, reflecting the global public good nature of the forests. Among the global values, we can distinguish between carbon values and other values attached to protecting the forest . The latter values can, in principle, be captured by survey-based estimates of the “willingness to pay” for Amazon forest preservation in non-Amazon (primarily, high-income) countries. Our first major public survey seeking information on such values, expressed by individuals in the U.S. and Canada, is scheduled to be done over the coming months. More surveys are planned to be done later, in Europe, Japan, and South America.

From the perspective of climate policy, our estimates can provide policy makers more accurate assessments of the co-benefits discussed above. I believe these values have already influenced policy decisions despite their uncertain magnitudes . Improving the reliability of these estimates thus reduces uncertainty related to rainforest preservation programs. If the estimated values are found to be high, they might, conceivably, lead to more forceful international actions to protect the world’s biggest remaining rainforests.

How large can these global values be? The current Norwegian program for the Amazon rainforest, already funded and under way, implies that $1 billion can be paid out from Norway to Brazil over a 10-year period, given that certain protection targets are met for the Brazilian part of the Amazon. This amount is equivalent to $50 per Norwegian household per year. Given that there was full political consensus in Norway on the program, this is a lower bound (likely an underestimate) of the true value of such protection to Norwegians. Similar figures scaled up to the OECD level would imply annual values for these countries of at least $20 billion for protecting the Amazon alone. Even if values turn out smaller, having them quantified will provide a more tangible basis for action than what currently exists, by indicating the magnitudes of the values at stake to each donor country when rainforest is lost.

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