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Rights-based forest management, ending fossil fuel emissions needed to avoid dangerous global warming

Restoring degraded forests can meet the world’s need to remove emissions from the atmosphere if fossil fuel emissions are simultaneously brought to zero by 2050 and forest communities should play a central role in this restoration, according to a new briefing issued at the opening of the Paris climate talks that rules out the need for dangerous carbon dioxide removal such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) to limit warming to below 2°C.

Indigenous peoples and local communities that live in and depend on forests are crucial rightsholders in the fight against climate change.

Most scenarios examined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assume that carbon dioxide will need to be removed from the atmosphere over the course of this century to keep global temperature rises below 2°C.

The briefing, by Fern, Friends of the Earth Norway and Rainforest Foundation Norway dismisses the need for dangerous carbon dioxide removal (CDR) measures, such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and large-scale, environmentally damaging forest plantations, which require large amounts of land - up to double the world’s current cropland – and rarely take into account the social and environment impact, particularly on food security, community land rights and biodiversity.

Read the entire brief "What role should land and forests play in the Paris agreement?" here.

There is an urgent need to end fossil fuel emissions. An agreement in Paris needs to reflect this by establishing a clear target for phasing out such emissions by 2050.

The findings are based on a new report by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) that highlights the dangers of any strategy to address climate change that relies heavily on speculative carbon dioxide removal (CDR) measures. Such measures have not yet been proven, and even if developed might pose such high social and ecological costs that they cannot safely be implemented, the report says. As an alternative, the briefing suggests to sharply limit the need for carbon dioxide removal by rapidly cutting emissions from fossil fuels and bringing deforestation to a halt.

Read the entire report "The risks of relying on tomorrow’s “negative emissions” to guide today’s mitigation ambition" here.

Johanne Houge, policy adviser at Friends of the Earth Norway said, “This report highlights the urgent need to end fossil fuel emissions. An agreement in Paris needs to reflect this by establishing a clear target for phasing out such emissions by 2050 at the latest, instead of discussing targets that risk diluting these efforts and open the door to risky ‘negative emission’ technologies."

Drawing on the findings of the SEI report, Fern, Rainforest Foundation Norway and Friends of the Earth Norway examine the need to meet the 2°C target in a social and equitable way, and find that if industrial emissions are brought to zero by 2050, and deforestation is halted by 2020, only a limited amount of increased carbon sequestration is needed to keep within 2C or 1.5C temperature limits.

Strengthening local communities’ tenure rights on forest lands should therefore be a key part of any climate solution.

This could almost entirely be met through ecosystems restoration, with some limited need for reforestation. These are measures that may have significant benefits besides mitigating climate change, and are in line with international targets that have already been set.

Evidence shows that ecosystems that are owned and managed by these groups have been proven to contain more carbon than forests where rights are unclear, and therefore do more to mitigate climate change. Strengthening local communities’ tenure rights on forest lands should therefore be a key part of any climate solution.

Hannah Mowat, forest and climate campaigner with Fern said that, provided these pre-requisites are met, this should be good news for forest-dwelling communities.

“With this research, we learn yet again that the indigenous peoples and local communities that live in and depend on forests are crucial rightsholders in the fight against climate change. Governments must, as a matter of urgency, recognise their customary tenure rights so they can continue their work to protect and restore forests to help limit warming in a safe way.”

Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at Stockholm Environment Institute and report co-author with Kate Dooley (University of Melbourne), says

“It is a highly risky strategy to assume that a few decades from now we’ll simply roll out negative emissions on a huge scale, when we don’t yet know whether that will be technically feasible, whether it can be done in ways that are ecologically and socially acceptable, and whether they will really give us permanent emission reductions. Thankfully, analysis suggests the 2°C goal can be met without any need for negative emissions, and the 1.5°C goal possibly just through natural ecosystems regeneration and a judicious level of reforestation.”

Carbon removals from ecosystems restoration must happen in addition to phasing out fossil fuels, not as a substitute for it.

To ensure that carbon sequestration is done safely, and with positive benefits for communities, flora and fauna, Fern, Rainforest Foundation Norway and Friends of the Earth Norway join many other civil society groups in rejecting ‘zero net’ goals, which obscure the extent to which governments may rely on carbon sequestration, instead of reducing emissions at source. Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel are to all extents and purposes permanent and cannot be offset from growing forests.

Nils Hermann Ranum, head of the policy division at Rainforest Foundation Norway, said, “A key message from this report is that carbon removals from ecosystems restoration must happen in addition to phasing out fossil fuels, not as a substitute for it. This means getting rid of the ‘net zero’ goal and instead setting separate specific targets for phasing out fossil fuel emissions, halting emissions from deforestation, and restoring degraded ecosystems.”