In the aftermath of Paris Agreement, nature and humanity lose

This emissions gap is deadly and has very real consequences for all of us – species will disappear, extreme weather will devastate crops and livelihood, and there will be whole islands lost. C limate refugees would have nowhere to go.

To add insult to injury, the pledges or INDCs are not even legally binding. This means that if a country doesn’t fulfill its "contribution," nothing will happen. There is no compliance mechanism or instrument to sanction that member state. Big polluters are supposed to cut emissions out of the goodness of their hearts, but experience shows us that this is not likely to happen, especially if it is seen as impeding economic growth.

Furthermore, while the Paris Agreement fails to create an effective mechanism to ensure that countries cut their emissions far enough and fast enough to close the emissions gap in time, it has opened the door for new carbon market mechanisms (in Article 6). So far, carbon market mechanisms have done nothing to reduce emissions. Instead they have provided loopholes for polluters to escape their historical responsibilities.

The way the text does this is rather subtle, however. It does not use the terms "carbon markets" or "carbon offsets." Instead, it speaks of a “mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development” that will “contribute to the reduction of emission levels in the host Party, which will benefit from mitigation activities resulting in emission reductions that can also be used by another Party to fulfill its nationally determined contribution."

In other words, one country may buy carbon credits from another to minimize its obligation to reduce emissions. Spell that out clearly: carbon trading.

How this mechanism is going to operate, and which new carbon markets are going to be developed is yet to be decided. But the door is now open and it is very clear that large companies and financial investors want to include the carbon-absorbing activities of forests in carbon markets. The transnational corporations that have captured the climate change negotiations also want to have a carbon market related to "land use change," a very vague term that could include anything from agriculture to livestock. This could be particularly dangerous as it could allow carbon accounting and carbon markets to determine food and agricultural policies.

Of forests, SDG 15.2, and plantations

Article 5 of the Paris Agreement speaks about forests. It talks about preserving them “through results-based payments” and “positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation." It also promotes the “enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries” which implies the development of socially and environmentally damaging monoculture tree plantations, which can be included in carbon calculations under current rules. These activities are normally referred to as REDD+.

This article is far less ambitious than Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15.2, also recently agreed to by governments, which aims to halt deforestation by 2020. This target does not get a mention in Article 5 of the climate agreement. Rather, in the INDCs submitted by countries with high rates of deforestation, we can see that they are planning to continue with deforestation not only after 2020, but even beyond 2030. For example, some INDCs, such as Brazil’s, mention a halt to illegal deforestation, but legal deforestation is still allowed.

A study done by a group of research centers analyzed the commitments in the INDCs from the BRICS countries (ie Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). It found that the overall outcome will be business continuing as usual until 2030. They will only begin reducing emissions by 2030. 

To summarize, the INDCs currently on the table are violating SDG 15.2, but the UN has not acknolwedged this astonishing lack of policy coherence.

The Paris Agreement should have guaranteed the SDG goal of zero deforestation by 2020, so that it is coherent with these already agreed global goals. The reason it does not is that big business, which has undue influence on the climate change negotiations, does not want to stop the deforestation of real forests – it wants to be allowed to compensate for that deforestation with cash crop monoculture tree plantations. This is the road we are now on, thanks to the Paris Agreement.

Finally, the Paris Agreement does not speak explicitly about geoengineering or BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) – but that does not mean these topics are not being discussed by governments. Since emission cuts in the INDCs fall short of the "below 2ºC" target, corporations have jumped on the opportunity to propose dangerous, untested, and risky technologies which they argue would help reach it.

For example, "negative emissions" is a euphemism for capturing carbon and carbon dioxide removal. Several studies, most recently by Biofuelwatch, have discounted the promises of BECCS, arguing that BECCS is not viable and at scale would even be a contributor to land use change emissions.  Furthermore, to implement large-scale monoculture tree plantations or bioenergy crops to capture and store carbon would need twice the world’s arable land area. 

Moving forward

Accepting the Paris Agreement without question risks us wasting another 15 vital years on distracting public opinion and creating the illusion that something positive is happening when, in reality, humanity and nature are losing precious time that can never be recovered.

After Paris, it is clear that real solutions will come from the grassroots movements, indigenous communities, and people on the ground. To encourage that process, it is necessary to uncover the awful truth about what is really happening in the climate negotiations.

We need to call for concrete and urgent action that ensures that temperature increases stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius – without the use of risky and harmful technologies such as BECCS, and without loopholes, such as those relating to land use accounting and market mechanisms.

We need to fight for concrete action to reach the goal of zero deforestation by 2020, and resist the creation of new market mechanisms, especially on land use and agriculture. We must defend the rights of women, indigenous communities, peasants, and nature. – 

Mary Louise Malig, a researcher and trade analyst, is Campaigns Coordinator of Global Forest Coalition