Maria Eugenia Recio
Researcher, MPhil, Environmental and Climate Change Law
Merely a year after its adoption, the landmark Paris climate change treaty came into effect on 4 November 2016. Its Parties are currently convening for the first time in Marrakesh, Morocco. These are clearly important steps for the United Nations climate change regime. At the same time, in light of countries’ nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, it is clear that more ambitious mitigation efforts are needed to achieve the 1.5°C and 2°C temperature goals included in the Agreement.
Large forests located in developing countries can play an important role in global climate change mitigation efforts by taking up carbon from the atmosphere and storing it. The Paris Agreement taps into this potential by encouraging countries to implement measures to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, commonly known as “REDD+”. The basic idea behind REDD+ is that developing countries can apply for compensation for the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by protecting and not cutting their standing forests.
But does the inclusion of REDD+ in the Paris Agreement actually strengthen international efforts with respect to forests? The protection of natural forests through a multilateral, legally binding agreement has been on the international agenda for over two decades. Sovereignty concerns of developing countries were one of the main reasons why such agreement has not materialized. Nevertheless, during ten years of negotiations on REDD+ under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, countries have agreed on a variety of detailed rules in the form a dozen decisions by the Convention’s governing body known as the Conference of the Parties (COP).
Decicions by the UNFCCC COP have gradually helped to build trust, allowing developing countries to engage in negotiations that could be considered to be “safer” than negotiations on a legally binding agreement. Following the mention of REDD+ and the existing framework in the Paris Agreement, the collection of decisions taken to protect forests in developing countries is now for the first time anchored in a legally binding agreement.
A legally binding agreement implies a stronger commitment by countries to comply with its provisions, as it usually requires ratification by national parliaments. However, the legal force of each particular provision in the agreement depends on the language used. Thus, while the Paris Agreement is clearly a legally binding international agreement, it contains both mandatory and non-mandatory language. Notably for forests, countries are merely “encouraged” to take and support REDD+ action; this does not create a legal obligation to implement REDD+.
Also the existing rules for REDD+ adopted by the COP make its implementation completely voluntary. Furthermore, they favour results-based payments, meaning that countries first need to take action on REDD+ before being compensated based on emission reductions. Such an approach excludes the possibility that REDD+ countries take on obligations to reduce forest emissions beforehand.
Regardless of the largely voluntary nature of the legal framework for REDD+, Parties to the Paris Agreement have taken on a political commitment to support REDD+. This political recognition can arguably give REDD+ a higher profile and boost its implementation, which could result in more funding to address deforestation in developing countries and broader international support.
Another positive step is that REDD+ rules relating to transparency require countries to report on emission reductions and on the impacts that activities have on forest communities and the environment (e.g. biological diversity). However, international oversight over such reporting is limited, and the process remains largely in the hands of national governments.
It is useful to note here that while the Paris Agreement also establishes a broader framework for transparency and review, it does not change the transparency rules for REDD+ and recognizes that the REDD+ framework is “already developed”. This does not mean, however, that the existing REDD+ rules are cast in stone. On the contrary, the inclusion of REDD+ in the Paris Agreement creates, in my view, a stronger mandate for Parties to make changes to REDD+ rules in the future. This could mean, for example, aligning REDD+ rules with the new transparency framework applicable to the post-2020 climate regime.
Finally, the Paris Agreement also contains elements that can attract participation in REDD+. First, it effectively reassures that REDD+ will continue to be a part of the long-term international climate regime. This offers a positive assurance for those considering to invest in REDD+ in the medium- to long-term.
Second, while the relationship between countries’ nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement and REDD+ remains subject to clarification, REDD+ could be part of the toolbox available for countries to achieve their NDCs.
Third, for countries willing to use markets to finance REDD+, the agreement creates the legal basis for a market mechanism for countries to ostensibly trade emission reductions, although whether and how it will be used for REDD+ implementation remains to be seen.
In short, the Paris Agreement does make a difference for REDD+ by enhancing political support for REDD+, strengthening the mandate to continue addressing REDD+ through the climate regime, and offering elements that can broaden country participation in the future.
This post has also been published at "Oikeutta kohtuudella", the official blog of UEF Law School.