Saving the planet depends on saving its tropical forests. Can we do it?

Living on Earth
Deforestation for palm oil

Saving the world’s tropical forests was a central element of the climate change agreement that emerged from COP21 in Paris. Delegates from all nations seem to have finally reached consensus on one point: Saving the planet from climate catastrophe is not achievable without also saving the Earth’s tropical forests.

One way of accomplishing this that has been around for a decade is the UN-REDD program.

As a tool for mitigating climate change, REDD has been called “the ultimate way to have our cake and eat it, too.” Saving tropical forests has the potential to remove or reduce about one-third of the world’s carbon emissions — buying time for the world to transfer away from fossil-fuel based economies, maintaining much of the world’s biodiversity and empowering local indigenous cultures.

Up to now, unfortunately, REDD’s implementation has fallen far short of its goals.

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The UN describes the program this way:

“It is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. REDD+ goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.”

New research shows that the tropics could theoretically save a whopping four to six gigatons of carbon a year if deforestation is halted and the trees are allowed to grow back, according to Richard Houghton of the Woods Hole Research Center.

“[That] is enough to stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide now and keep it stable as we come off of fossil fuels,” Houghton says.

But to make such sharp carbon cuts, the world would need to end its current business-as-usual practices almost immediately — that is, stop cutting and burning virgin forests, begin to restore them and drastically reduce the logging of plantation trees that are used for pulp and paper, Houghton says.

The main challenge to making REDD work is finding a way to reduce deforestation while at the same time promoting social and economic development, says Mariano Cenamo of the Institute for Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Amazon.

“As we know, the main driver of deforestation in most of these regions comes from the need for economic development — from agriculture, cattle ranching, mining and illegal logging,” Cenamo said. “To substitute another land use for these activities that generate revenue, we need investments, we need funds and we need financial support.”

About 20 percent of the world’s tropical forests are in indigenous territories, and many of these lands have changed little in hundreds if not thousands of years. The local communities are now developing and farming, but courts seldom grant indigenous people title to their lands. The REDD discussion has brought some clarity to this issue.

In 2013, the constitutional court of Indonesia ruled that customary land rights must be ceded back to local indigenous communities. “That is a mind-boggling decision,” says Dan Nepstad, a tropical biologist and REDD expert who heads the Earth Innovation Institute in San Francisco. “It has to be implemented, and that’s a big step — but the context for that was the REDD debate.”

But, as is so often the case, the human drive for short-term gain — in Indonesia, mostly in the form of rapidly growing palm oil forests that destroy millions of acres of tropical forest — continues to trump the planet’s need for long-term planning.

“I think there is nothing wrong with REDD, if the implementation puts indigenous peoples' rights as a precondition,” says Abdon Nababan of Indonesia, secretary general of Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago. “We have the same goals with REDD+ — to reduce deforestation and forest degradation. But if they put REDD into the hands of corporations, it will colonize our territory.”

Even after the constitutional court’s ruling, ownership of most of Indonesia’s forests is held by corporations that want to dry the nation’s rainforests and peat lands to create plantations for palm oil — and these industries are fiercely opposed to any change in support of indigenous peoples' rights, Nabadan says.

The agreement at COP 21 showed a new determination to use nature’s own best method of saving the Earth from the worst effects of climate change. But now, as the time for implementation is at hand, it’s still uncertain whether this time around humanity can make the difficult changes needed to do it.

This article is based on interviews that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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