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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has become the focus of both environmental policy makers and international campaign groups, as the Conference of the Parties prepares for its 21st Session in Paris from Nov 30 to Dec 11.

The upcoming event is one of the more significant meetings in that it is set to finalise an international treaty that is to replace the Kyoto Protocol – an agreement that is nearly 20 years old.

A decision on the future of the Kyoto Protocol was due to be taken in 2009 at the UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen. However, that meeting was an abject failure. The world’s major emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG) failed to agree on a common approach.


A key element of this failure was the inability of the developed world – most notably the EU – to accept the position taken by the world’s emerging and developing economies.

The developing countries were ably led by a strong negotiating bloc comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China – referred to as the BASIC grouping. These countries are also members of the G77, a coalition of 134 developing and emerging economies that often forms joint positions at UN meetings. Malaysia is a member of the G77.

The meeting was marked by a significant NGO presence. Their focus at the time was the supposedly high levels of GHG emissions caused by conversion of forest land to other uses, and the forest sector and land use more broadly.

Consequently many industries that relied upon conversion of forest land – palm oil included – found themselves in the firing line in the lead-up to the conference, based on the claim that they contribute significantly to carbon emissions.

The key contention was that deforestation was causing 20% of global GHG emissions. This was a figure that was supported by Greenpeace, WWF and some Western governments.

However, that figure was comprehensively debunked with a better understanding of both the rates of deforestation, as well as emissions from deforestation. The understood figure is now roughly half that – approximately 10%.

Using this higher figure through 2008 and 2009, Greenpeace and many other campaigners went after major purchasers of palm oil. Unilever was the highest profile target. The campaigners’ report, ‘How Unilever Suppliers are Burning Up Borneo’, was an extraordinary exercise in black campaigning against the Indonesian palm oil industry.

Problems with REDD

The measure that Greenpeace and others proposed in the UN in 2009 to mitigate forest-based emissions was REDD – reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Many NGOs, some developing countries and the government of Norway were proponents of this concept, which involved paying countries not to deforest.

Yet there were significant problems with REDD that became apparent very quickly:

  • The first was that measuring emissions from land use was plagued with inaccuracies and not particularly well understood.
  • The second was that paying people not to deforest would ultimately mean that you were telling them whether they could grow food on their own land or not – meaning there were significant economic and social implications.
  • The third was that the original idea – ‘that forests should be more worth standing than as timber products’ – failed to appreciate why most people have cleared land, which is for agriculture. This meant that a parallel contention, that compensation would be inexpensive, was completely wrong. Compensation would have to cover entire commodity classes – such as palm oil.

Taken to its logical conclusion, it would effectively mean subsidies for farmers to not grow crops – which would inevitably impact production, output and prices. This was ultimately not a way to reduce poverty.

Unsurprisingly, REDD has changed significantly. Activities are still being implemented under so-called UN-REDD programmes, but these are a world away from the idea of setting up a global payments system to end deforestation, or the generation of carbon credits for avoided deforestation.

Likely scenario in Paris

With all this in mind, what is the outlook for the Paris conference in terms of reaching an agreement, and for forest and agricultural policy?

In terms of the overall agreement, the UNFCCC is aware that it can’t have another perceived failure if it is to maintain credibility and justify the vast expense associated with its work on an annual basis.

Other multilateral agreements that emerged at the same time as the UNFCCC – such as the Convention on Biological Diversity – operate with smaller budgets and arguably achieve similar results.

But part of the problem with the UNFCCC is the level of expectation placed upon it by the activist community, and the use of its meetings as a general platform to air grievances, whether related to poverty, gender or capitalism more broadly. The image of Hugo Chavez railing against capitalism in 2009 immediately springs to mind.

The UNFCCC secretariat has therefore gone out of its way to address the underlying tensions that plague the prospect of a future agreement.

The EU (and more recently the US) have been the key proponents of a treaty that will require all countries to make binding commitments to cut emissions, with large emitters such as China firmly in their sights.

The response of the BASIC nations has been to point out that the Convention itself – the document that any agreements are founded on – contains a notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ between rich and poor nations.

The rationale is reasonably simple: industrialised nations have historical responsibility for most emissions and are therefore the creators of the problem, so developing nations can’t be expected to pay the price.

A similar logic can be applied to deforestation and agricultural development. Deforestation for agriculture and economic development in Europe and North America has been well documented. Developing nations can’t be expected to hold back on food production for this reason, and food production is a more essential part of development than, say, building a coal-fired power station.

Policy measure forthcoming?

So will this translate into a policy measure at the Paris conference? It’s unlikely.

REDD has already been incorporated in some ways into the UNFCCC’s broader work. Countries have been asked to make submissions on the best way to reduce emissions from deforestation and land-use change. An agreement on a methodological approach was made in June this year.

But what is more important is individual country policies and how these impact the negotiations.

The EU, which has been the driver of much of the work on REDD, is currently not in a position to demand much in relation to forests. The EU has been struggling with its own position on how and whether to incorporate land-use emissions into its own emissions trading system – and therefore its commitments under the UN. If the EU is struggling to determine how it is going to treat its own land-use emissions, it can’t ask others for anything.

This leaves campaign groups. Will campaigners make a big deal of forests in Paris? Yes, but it won’t be the focus. There are two reasons.

First, coal-powered generation is the climate change cause celebre of the moment. There has been little in the way of campaigning specifically on deforestation emissions as something to be handled by governments, which leads to the second point.

Greenpeace and many other groups worked out a number of years ago that lobbying governments on climate policy was for the most part ineffective. These groups made a concerted effort to campaign against major corporations and their brands rather than aiming for policy change.

This is essentially the reason these groups have spent most of their energy either launching black campaigns against companies and/or pushing for change through and within forums such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

This leaves the fact that the world’s media will be trained on Paris, which will give these groups an opportunity to push their causes and voice their complaints, however inaccurate these may be. Will palm oil be spared? Unlikely.



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