United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is opening the General Assembly week in New York with a ‘Climate Action Summit’. This one-day event is intended to spur new commitments from countries, and greater overall ambition in achieving under-two-degree warming pathways. The international network CLARA – Climate, Land, Ambition, and Rights Alliance – welcomes Secretary-General Guterres’ focus on ambition, and our members look forward to participating in the Summit.
The last such ‘climate action summit’ convened by a UN Secretary General was five years ago, prior to the Paris climate conference that led to new national commitments and a new global target for ambition (limiting warming to 1.5°C).
So what should we expect from the official program for the Summit next week?
A very positive development in the current Summit agenda is the increased attention given to mitigation opportunities in the land sector, called ‘Nature Based Solutions’ (NBS). NBS is one of nine workstreams for the Summit, and surprisingly, one of the most prominent. (The other workstreams include: mitigation strategy, social and political drivers, youth and mobilization, energy transition, resilience and adaptation, infrastructure, cities and local government, climate finance and carbon pricing and industry.) UN staff – and the countries co-chairing the NBS work stream, China and New Zealand – solicited examples of ‘climate actions’ from countries and NGOs to feed into the Summit. CLARA members submitted over a dozen ideas to the NBS workstream with actions on land rights, land restoration, and agroecology spanning four continents. CLARA will track the new commitments made by countries and provide updates as details emerge.
A ‘Nature Based Solutions for Climate’ Manifesto was released by these leaders last month, which provides important direction for the workstream. Among the key points are:
- Climate and biodiversity are linked. Ecologists have long recognized that the climate crisis cannot be addressed separately from a concern for biodiversity, but these linkages have been very slow to emerge in the main treaty bodies tasked with addressing the crises. Making the link explicit suggests the shifts in perception now underway – toward an understanding that natural systems do more for carbon sequestration, resilience, and recovery from disturbance than any engineered solutions.
- Long-term solutions are needed. Why is ‘long-term’ important? Cumulative greenhouse gas emissions over time increase the ‘radiative forcing’ responsible for inexorable temperature rise. Ecosystem restoration isn’t an instant solution; the maximum carbon sequestration values from assisting forest regrowth occur at least a decade, and sometimes several decades, after initial planting. To get to long-term solutions, therefore, we need to start immediately.
- Stop destroying nature! Using the polite language of international diplomacy, the Manifesto calls for “governance processes that are designed to stop the destruction of nature”. No one could disagree with this – but still, it’s important to call that destruction out. Like what is happening in Brazil with fires in the Amazon. Like what’s happening with climate denialism in the United States and the widespread leasing of public lands for fossil fuel exploration. Both the European Union and China are doing a better job at home in implementing nature-friendly ‘governance process’; but consumer demand in these places – particularly for livestock products (meat and dairy), which accounts for well over half of all GHG emissions in the agriculture sector – causes substantial harm to the natural world in places far away from where the consumption occurs. The burning of the Amazon matters. But a ‘root cause’ analysis makes it clear that the destruction there is a consequence of burgeoning global demand for beef, for soybeans, and for oil palm. The manifesto calls out “the damage caused by investments or incentives that contribute to environmental harm.” In our own lives, as well, it’s worth examining the ways in which we might be contributing to harm.
It is too much to expect that a UN summit will redirect behavior away from the destruction of nature. But it’s worth asking whether the ‘pledging’ approach – of countries making new commitments at the Summit – reflects adequate ambition. Countries are willing to talk about planting trees, or reigning in illegal logging – but we’re not yet seeing any thorough-going review of the policies and economic incentives for deforestation, which swamps the volume of financial pledges for restoring forests.
Countries, companies, and civil networks agreed to the New York Declaration on Forests at the last major climate action summit in 2014. The New York Declaration also used a pledging approach – and review of progress toward meeting the goals of the Declaration released last week suggests the news isn’t very good: “only a fraction of the committed restoration goals has been realized… evidence for restoration of forests amounts to only 18 percent of the 2020 forest landscape restoration goal.” Meanwhile the number of companies with commitments to reduced deforestation in their supply chains hasn’t increased much.
In other words, it’s ‘business as usual’, except for the few positive examples led by committed companies. We’ve seen even less leadership at the nation-state level. Maybe this is something the Summit could change.
CLARA has developed a set of guidelines for evaluating the new commitments – and their seriousness. First among those is a simple measure – is a country willing to commit to ending deforestation now? CLARA argues that we need a worldwide moratorium on logging in natural forests. Now.
Other key points we’ll use to evaluate commitments:
- Are indigenous and community rights being respected? Indigenous peoples and local communities find themselves on the front line of struggles against powerful actors and need our support. CLARA calls for Latin American states to ratify the Escazú Agreement – a legal agreement that includes protections for environmental human rights defenders (Article 9).
- Is food security prioritized? There is a huge need for funding and technical support to help farmers adapt in a warming world. This is one of the most important areas of international assistance and exchange to ensure a sustainable future. Financial pledges are welcome at the Summit – and rich countries should pledge substantial support for adaptation work in the farm sector in developing countries.
- Is agroecology mentioned as a solution? It’s worrying to note the strong shadow cast by agro-industries in the NBS workstream, because it’s now clear: from increases in cancer risk to the ‘insect-apocalypse’, chemical-dependent industrial agriculture is killing us. Farming based on ecological principles of crop diversity and whole-of-system productivity gains are healthiest for the planet – and for humans.
- Does the commitment suggest that plantations are forests? Well, plantations aren’t forests. There’s a huge difference in the resilience and productivity of healthy, diverse natural forests as compared to regimented, monoculture plantations. The proper metric is not ‘acres of trees planted’, but rather ‘recovery of forest ecosystem function while protecting human livelihoods.’ The most important shift therefore is from a forest-extraction economy to a forest-restoration economy. And there are plenty of jobs in the latter!
- Does the commitment talk about bioenergy as a solution? Replacing coal with forests for burning is simply a false solution and is increasingly recognized as such by scientists. Calls to increase bioenergy use are irresponsible and have no place in a ‘nature-based solutions’ workstream.
- Is the commitment just a disguised call for the use of offsets? CLARA members feel strongly that the climate emergency is such that land and forests cannot be used to offset emissions from ongoing fossil fuel use. Coal, oil, and gas companies – or the airlines – shouldn’t get a ‘free pass’ to continue polluting by allowing investments in offset instruments. Each sector needs to make its own commitments, and not seek to borrow ambition from another.
Only the land sector can deliver the ‘long-term, cost-efficient, globally-scalable’ solutions called for in the Manifesto. It would be the height of folly to trade away gains painstakingly achieved in the land-use sector in order to allow for the continuation of high-consumption, high-carbon industries and lifestyles. CLARA members are concerned that too many of the potential commitments may seek to cement in place market-trading arrangements that are bad for ambition and bad for the planet.
We’ll be tracking the Summit and the commitments made in the NBS Workstream and we look forward to reporting on progress made!