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CLIMATE CHANGE: Taking Forests into Account

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 16 2009 (IPS) - What role can forests play in the fight against climate change? What impact do tree plantations have? What effect will the bioenergy craze have on forests? These are some of the questions that experts, government officials and business leaders from around the world will try to answer next week in Argentina.

Felled trees in the jungle in northern Nicaragua.  Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

Felled trees in the jungle in northern Nicaragua. Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

The 13th World Forestry Congress, which opens Sunday in Buenos Aires, will draw more than 4,000 participants. The international congress has been held since 1926, generally every six years.

This year’s edition, co-organised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Argentine government, coincides with a twofold challenge: the interest in investing in forestry projects that generate new jobs at a time of crisis, and the need to provide a response to the growing problem of global warming.

According to the WFC web site, “These meetings serve as a forum for governments, universities, civil society and the private sector to exchange views and experiences and to formulate recommendations to be implemented at the national, regional and global levels. The Congress also provides an opportunity to present an overview of the state of forests and forestry in order to discern trends, adapt policies and raise awareness among decision and policy makers, the public and other stakeholders.”

“We don’t want this to be just another forestry industry fair; we want to start a new cycle of experiences for developing countries to do business and find new investment,” the secretary general of the Congress, Argentine biologist Leopoldo Montes, told IPS.

According to the programme, plenary sessions will be held on forests and biodiversity, producing for development, conservation, development opportunities and other issues. There will also be a business roundtable, and forums on investment and financing, energy, and climate change.

Because of the growing interest in bioenergy, participants will analyse the use of wood for producing heat and liquid fuels using modern technologies developed in industrialised countries.

The organisers say afforestation and reforestation can help mitigate global warming by capturing carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – and plan to submit recommendations to the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December.

But there is no consensus on the question. Experts do not all agree on the impact of plantation forestry in the fight against climate change, especially in the case of monoculture plantations of eucalyptus and other fast-growing trees used by the paper, pulp and wood industries.

In a conversation with IPS, Olman Serrano, the assistant secretary general of the congress, said the Oct. 18-23 gathering “offers a unique experience-sharing opportunity for experts” as well as a “technical-academic foundation” for governments, companies, and civil society.

Serrano, a FAO senior forestry officer, said the congress would produce a final document, as well as a separate report containing specific recommendations for Copenhagen, with proposals to be discussed there regarding the policies that should be adopted when the Kyoto Protocol on climate change expires in 2012.

“Forests should play a multifaceted role in the fight against climate change,” not only as carbon sinks, said Serrano. In the eyes of the FAO, the issue was “neglected” in the debates and agreements that led to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, when forests “were left out of the discussion,” he said.

“In the last 10 years, an enormous effort was made for forests not to just be considered carbon sinks, but to be seen as part of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans,” said Serrano.

Ambassador Raúl Estrada Oyuela, who chaired the Ad Hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate, which was set up to conduct the talks that led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, pointed out to IPS that article 3 of that international treaty “considers afforestation and reforestation as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in the presentation of national inventories.”

The diplomat was referring to the reports that states party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must periodically present on the contribution of each sector – industry, transportation, deforestation and agriculture – to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Estrada Oyuela noted that afforestation and deforestation can also be part of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows governments and companies in industrialised nations to offset emission quotas by investing in emission-reduction projects in developing countries.

However, “the management of native forests was not initially incorporated (in the CDM) due to the enormous methodological difficulties involved in estimating just how much carbon is captured as a result of human management of forests,” he said.

Agronomist engineer Héctor Ginzo, who is a member of the Argentine Academy of Environmental Sciences’ Climate Institute, which advised Estrada Oyuela in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, explained to IPS why forests were not included in the Protocol’s market mechanisms.

Ginzo said that only in 2005, after two years of talks, did the states party to the UNFCCC accept afforestation and reforestation as part of the CDM, although the procedure that was designed turned out to be “so complex that only eight projects have been approved so far” worldwide.

“No one likes the procedure; it’s very expensive, and can only be approved for small-scale projects presented by non-governmental organisations or by states,” he said. Furthermore, companies, which are the main targets of the CDM, were not interested in participating, he added.

Ginzo said the CDM “would never allow” a plantation of eucalyptus or other fast-growing trees for use as pulp or wood to be considered a sustainable forestry project, because that kind of production favours monoculture forests, and the carbon capture is lost when the trees are cut down.

What the CDM is aimed at, said Ginzo, is fomenting slow-growing trees that take 70 or 80 years to mature – but that can only attract initiatives financed by the state, he said.

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