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The role of forest definitions in global climate change negotiations

The role of forest definitions in global climate change negotiations

The way in which forests are defined will be a crucial factor in determining whether REDD serves a truly useful purpose in helping to protect the world’s forests or, alternatively, is simply used as a means of supplementing the incomes of logging and industrial plantation companies.

It is widely agreed that the existing definition of “forest”, as agreed under the Marrakesh Accords, and which allows for any areas as small as 0.05 hectare and with as little as 10% tree cover, is woefully inadequate in terms of recognising the wider roles and functions that true forests fulfil. In this piece, Sean Cadman of the Wilderness Society, who has been involved in recent UNFCCC discussions on forest definitions, considers some of the issues.

A forest by any other name but not as sweet

Sean Cadman, Wilderness Society, Australia

Most people reading this article will have their own preconceived biases as to what a forest looks like depending on where you are on the planet. Yes you say so what! Well it really does matter because when the UNFCCC decided to define a forest for the purpose of the climate change negotiations they picked a definition so broad that it was ecologically meaningless.

The current definition used for reporting and accounting purposes under the Kyoto Protocol is structurally based, comprising:

  • A minimum area of land of 0.05 hectares with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10 per cent with trees with the potential to reach a minimum height of 2 metres at maturity in situ.
  • It includes (i) young stands of natural regeneration; (ii) all plantations which have yet to reach a crown density of 10-30 per cent or tree height of 2-5 metres; (iii) areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention such as harvesting or natural causes but which are expected to revert to forest.

The KP definition makes no distinction between, among other things, planted crops of monoculture perennial woody plants and complex biodiverse natural forests.

So when you think about your picture of a forest wherever you live it is very unlikely to include 2 meter high oil palms marching endlessly over the hills of a devastated tropical forest landscape or 10 m high fields of spindly eucalypt trees planted in straight lines alongside the remnants of a 500 year old forest of 80 meter high giant old-growth eucalypt forest at the edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness in Australia.

Those of you immersed in the fight to protect forests and the rights of forest dwelling peoples may have seen the images associated with the word picture I have painted but what is not well known is that under the current definition and rules of the KP these are forests and further that if you established them after 1990 (the base year of the current accounting commitment period) it is not deforestation.

‘Clever’ countries like Australia who have been involved in a massive plantation establishment effort since 1990 avoided taking any responsibility for the emissions generated by their forest conversion practices by electing NOT to account for forest management. If forest management activities had been accounted for, the emissions from this practice would have had to be accounted for. The conversion of a forest to a ‘forest’ is not deforestation, so the massive CO2 emissions went unaccounted and largely unreported.

This has terrible potential consequences in the context of a global climate initiative to Reduce Emissions from forest Degradation and Deforestation, REDD.

Many of us involved in the international climate negotiations can see the potential for a massive increase in forest conversion to plantations (or logging) incentivized by financial mechanisms aimed at reducing rates of deforestation.

The Wilderness Society and many other ENGOs are proposing that plantations must be treated separately to forests in any new climate change deal. We believe the simplest way to deal with this particular issue is to separate forests and plantations as they are clearly not the same thing.

A possible way to deal with this is to simply split natural forests and plantations while leaving the current structural definition in place:

    1. Natural Forest

    A natural forest is a terrestrial ecosystem generated and maintained primarily through natural ecological and evolutionary processes.

    Natural forests are an essential part of the global carbon cycle, and have played, and continue to play, a major role in modulating the strength of the greenhouse effect.

    2. Plantations

    A plantation is a crop of trees planted and regularly harvested by humans.

A short paper prepared to discuss the rationale and issues associated with splitting forest and plantations for the purposes of the climate negotiations can be downloaded here.

While many parties involved in the climate negotiations recognize the problem of the conversion of natural forests to plantations many, particularly the Europeans are wedded to deeply held views that can’t see a forest for the trees. Admitting that a lot of the European ‘forests’ are simply plantations would allow the debate to move on and allow the two things to be treated separately.

Ultimately forest conversion is deforestation and we need to dramatically reduce the practice and certainly not end up subsidizing it which is the fervent hope of some in the global forest and biofuels sectors.

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