Since the dismal conclusion of the Copenhagen talks, experts following the UN climate change negotiations have been trying to sort out whether the Copenhagen Accord was a step forward or not. Some have begun calling it the Copenhagen Discord. Some have taken a gentler view, saying that even if it is not the solution, at least it helps build consensus. Reading the tea leaves on the issue of forests and wilderness is similarly difficult.

Over the last few months, hopes that a breakthrough in UN negotiations might be forthcoming by next year’s meeting in Mexico have begun to fade. First, Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Republican vote for energy legislation, withdrew his support for passing energy legislation in the U.S. this year. This of course delays progress domestically in the U.S., and it also severely hampers the U.S.’s ability to negotiate effectively at the international level. The decision by a number of moderates in the U.S. Congress (most recently Evan Bayh) not to run for reelection weakens prospects for any meaningful energy legislation. And this is probably why BP, Conoco Philips and Caterpillar announced they were not renewing their participation in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a business and NGO coalition advocating for legislation to reduce carbon emissions. They see no reason to bother.

On the 18th of February Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change announced he’d be resigning later in the year, a strong sign that chances for an imminent breakthrough by the next meeting in Mexico were slim. Then Connie Hedergaard, the former minister for energy and climate in Denmark and president of the UN negotiations in Copenhagen, now European Commissioner for Climate Action, said she didn’t feel an outcome would be reachable by the next UN climate meeting in Mexico. In her view, a new treaty would probably have to wait until the following meeting in 2012 to be hosted by South Africa, one of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), a coalition widely which is viewed as a lynchpin in the talks.

What about forests and wilderness? The forests debate did gain prominence and momentum in Copenhagen and in particular in the Copenhagen Accord: there is now broad recognition that forests need to be a part of the climate change solution. At the same time, the forests debate continues to be plagued with problems, including the recurring issue of distinguishing between natural forests, which are valuable in sequestering carbon and in climate change adaptation (and provide many other benefits, social and biodiversity related) – and plantations, such as oil palm plantations, which have very few carbon or biodiversity benefits.

Common sense would require safeguards to prevent valuable natural forests from being converted to vast, monoculture palm plantations, but to date it has not been possible to reach agreement on language that will prevent this absurd outcome. A recent draft EU biofuels and bioliquids sustainability scheme includes language that would recognize industrial plantations, including oil palm as forested areas. This demonstrates once again how hard it is to achieve the right result on this issue, despite broad agreement from the scientific and conservation community – as reflected in the Mensaje de Merida – that converting natural forests to plantations is an extraordinarily bad idea. Getting oil palm plantations off the table for carbon credits will be an important sign that countries are finally getting serious about protecting forests.

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