Forests in the Paris Agreement

As the Practicum’s resident forester, it is my duty to take a closer look at how the Paris Agreement deals with forests. For context, emissions from the forest sector currently make up anywhere from 10-15% of annual global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Van der Werf et al. 2009), similar to emissions from personal cars and trucks (Silvia-Chavez 2015).

Forests and deforestation are explicitly referenced in their own article of the Agreement, Article 5, which contains just two paragraphs. This text reaffirms and solidifies the role of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) in the Agreement and any subsequent actions by Parties. In short, Article 5 suggests that Parties steward forests as sinks of GHGs, and encourages them to “implement… the existing framework” for policies- including payments- which mitigate climate change through forests. Although this text is brief it provides a powerful statement on how forests will be treated in the coming century. Essentially, Parties have agreed that deforestation cannot continue and that forests must be better managed to ensure mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Exactly how this will happen will be worked through in the coming years, but the Agreement is clear that finance from developed to developing countries will play a key role in facilitating this.

Perhaps a more important testament to the importance of forests in the future is given in Article 4 (Mitigation):

“to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century (UNFCCC 2015)”.

This statement affirms that the world is relying on forests (and other natural sinks of GHGs) to offset total anthropogenic GHG emissions by the middle of this century. Currently, scientists believe that forests and other sinks absorb as much as 60% of annual anthropogenic GHG emissions (Pan et al. 2011); this figure includes forests and oceans. Thus, marked emissions reductions are necessary across all sectors, a fact which is already known.

Overall, I am very proud and happy that the Agreement puts so much faith in our forests. The world is asking a lot of our forests. I am eager to read scientific literature and analysis from forest scientists to see if they believe forests can rise up and meet the challenge put before them in the Agreement.

References and Additional Resources:

Bellassen, V. & S. Luyssaert.  2014. “Carbon sequestration: Managing forests in uncertain times” Nature 506, 153–155 (13 February 2014) doi:10.1038/506153a: http://www.nature.com/news/carbon-sequestration-managing-forests-in-uncertain-times-1.14687

Pan, Y., Birdsey,R.A., Fang, J., Houghton, R.A., Kauppi, P.E. and Kurz, W.A.et al. 2011. “A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests”. Science 333,988–993.

Silvia-Chavez, G. 2015. “ Forests Emerge as a Big Winner in Paris Agreement”. Huffington Post 12 December 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gustavo-silvachavez/forests-emerge-as-a-big-w_b_8793226.html

UNFCCC 2015. Paris Agreement: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf

UN REDD Program: http://www.un-redd.org/aboutredd

Van der Werf, G. R., Morton, D. C., DeFries, R. S., Olivier, J. G., Kasibhatla, P. S., Jackson, R. B., … & Randerson, J. T. 2009. CO2 emissions from forest loss. Nature geoscience, 2(11), 737-738.

The Ever-Fluctuating Thoughts of UNFCCC Observer

As I finish writing my previous post about personal choices I try to make “because climate change,” I can’t help but think of whether or not these small decisions will be enough to make a difference in our ever-warming planet. Although the actions of a few people may be infinitesimally small compared to global greenhouse gas emissions, collective action can be meaningful. My goal with this post is not to dispute that individuals can be important drivers of change, but rather to take a more pragmatic approach to the discussion on greenhouse gas emissions and the reductions necessary to meet the variety of targets put forth in the Paris Agreement.

After four semesters at Duke I finally got the chance to take an interdisciplinary course on climate science and its societal implications. The class was taught by Dr. Drew Shindell, a fairly recent addition to Duke’s faculty from NASA. If I learned nothing else from Dr. Shindell’s class, I learned that limiting the warming of the planet to 2C below pre-industrial levels is nearly impossible. We would need to stop emitting greenhouse gases essentially immediately, and figure out a way to remove CO2 from the air. All of that would need to happen while holding quality of life steady in the developed world and allowing it to dramatically increase through sustainable development in the developing world. Needless to say, we are not ready for this. Despite this fact- which is widely known- we have still seen the emergence of the “High Ambition Coalition,” a group of parties advocating for a highly ambitious 1.5C temperature goal for the Paris Agreement.

Why would over 75 parties join a coalition advocating a goal which is literally impossible (at present)? Political will, inspiring enhanced action, public relations, and symbolic gestures have all been put forth as explanations for the Coalitions emergence. I think that all these things are great and that any enhanced ambition is welcome. But, preventing dangerous global climate change isn’t about symbolism, political correctness, or lofty goals. It’s about making real technological breakthroughs to make life as we know it possible without carbon or with carbon that does not impact the climate.
What comes out of Paris will be an incredible achievement 23 years in the making. However, on its own, it will not “solve” climate change”. In the months, years, and decades post-Paris we need to have the smartest minds in the world working towards actually achieving the goals which the Paris Agreement puts forth. It will be an exciting time to be alive and working in the environmental field! I hope you all are as enthusiastic as I am to tackle this task.

Because Climate Change

Last week the New York Times published a great, short article on simple things individuals can do to help combat climate change. They highlight things we’ve all heard before like taking public transit and being less wasteful. I’ve adopted a personal mantra to help me remember to make climate conscious choices in everyday life: Because climate change. For me, uttering those three words in my head before deciding whether to walk to drive, eat meat or veggies, or put a sweater on instead of turning the heat up really helps keep focused making the right choices. I even guilt my friends and family into making lower carbon decisions by justifying them with a “because climate change”. Our behavioural nudges may turn out to be more influential than we think at first glance. Afterall, if climate geeks aren’t making these types of choices, then who else will?

 

With the spotlight on the global meeting in Paris that is full of delegations, ministers, and heads of state from every country debating the future of our planet, it is hard to think that any one of us can do anything to take on something so complex as climate change. Of course, we will adjust to whatever policies come to be as a result of the Paris outcome as a society, but individual, voluntary actions are less clear to many people. Much of the recent media attention on climate change will soon fade and many Americans will go back to their daily, non-climate focused lives. As climate Dukies, it’s important for us to live and promote climate-friendly lifestyles. Sooner or later I hope my non-climate oriented friends will start making their own better choices when no one is around to tell them “because climate change”.

 

References:

Katz, J. and Daniel, J. “What you can do about climate change: Seven Simple Guidelines for Thinking About Carbon Emissions.” New York Times. 2 December 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/03/upshot/what-you-can-do-about-climate-change.html 

International Diplomacy or Soap Opera? Depends Who’s Watching

To an outsider, watching the diplomatic proceedings of COP 21 is far from exciting. In their most respectful, politically correct tones, delegates from around the world take turns reiterating what sound like the same points time and time again. Countries take the floor, lauding the COP presidency and their fellow negotiators for hard work and perseverance while continually pushing for more progress. Acronyms are thrown around like nothing: LDC, LMDC, INDC, CBDR, EIG- the list goes on and on.

It’s not hard to see that the average onlooker would be thoroughly confused and in fact quite bored of what’s going on.

But to a group of self-proclaimed climate geeks (ie the Duke Practicum students), the COP is like a two week long soap opera marathon with all our favorite characters. Being thoroughly fascinated by the UNFCCC process and knowing more than the average onlooker, us Dukies hang on every word, phrase, and tone of voice at the COP venue. We eagerly hang on every word spoken and written in the text. We’re more concerned with watching press conferences held by “climate celebrities” like Todd Stern and Christiana Figueres than “real” celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Alec Baldwin. Those in Paris stay up late and those in Durham wake up early to stay up to date.

Despite the class being split between Durham and Paris with a six hour time difference, we are all still actively talking to each other about the latest happenings via the magic of web-based instant messaging. There are a lot of “didn’t see that coming” and other “oh snap” sorts of exclamations along with fluctuating expressions of optimism and pessimism in our group chat. The real-time commentary group chat really does resemble a group of people huddled around a television watching a juicy soap opera or cult classic movie unfold. It’s amazing to wake up to 60 messages from friends at home and in Paris dissecting what happened while I slept. If only the average onlooker had the enthusiasm for climate negotiations that we do!