The climate change negotiations in Cancun are unlikely to result in a global cap on greenhouse gas emissions, but forest preservation is the brightest spot for progress.
Forest preservation is opportunity for UEA to offset emissions
For wealthy nations like the United Arab Emirates, forest preservation provides an opportunity to offset emissions in a significant way. While the recent focus has been on carbon capture and storage technologies, the UAE might also explore this method of shrinking its carbon footprint - which has been singled out as the largest in the world per capita.
One of the cheapest and most effective methods to reduce climate change risks is by stopping the massive deforestation that is happening in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It is a problem that accounts for 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so stopping the chainsaws could save several giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide.
But for developing countries to afford to take aggressive conservation measures, they need compensation for the lost revenues from timber production and agriculture. Compensation can be given through debt-for-nature programmes, initiatives that allow debt restructuring for developing nations in exchange for that country's investment in conservation programmes.
For example, in the late 1990s, the US swapped 10 per cent of Poland's debt in exchange for stronger environmental programmes. For the past two years through the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, which allows for debt restructuring for eligible countries, the US has used $82.6 million (Dh303.4 million) to restructure loan agreements in almost a dozen countries. Similar programmes could be a great way to incentivise countries to invest in forest conservation.
In accepting compensation for conservation efforts, developing countries must be sensitive that when local communities rely on the forestry economy, conservation efforts often will be a cost local residents bear, while the benefits will occur at the national or international level. Making sure that the costs and benefits of conservation are equitably distributed will garner support for environmentally sound regulation.
Besides debt-for-nature programmes, there are other programmes that help developing countries address climate change. The UN programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is a new mechanism that provides financial support for developing countries willing to preserve their forests. Currently, REDD has 29 partner countries and it has approved a total of $51.4 million to support the implementation of conservation strategies in developing nations.
REDD also seeks to quantify the value of carbon stored in forests in order to incentivise developing countries to conserve forested lands. By monetising the value of carbon, countries may be better equipped to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that examines the economic efficiency of conservation and whether the aggregate benefits outweigh the aggregate opportunity costs of conservation.
While REDD is at the top of the agenda in Cancun, some countries have already got a head start. Norway, the world's third-largest gas exporter and fourth-biggest oil exporter, has sought ways to make itself carbon neutral in the next 20 years by offsetting its emissions. It has entered into agreements with governments in Africa to help fund forest preservation measure and pledged $1 billion to both Indonesia and Brazil to help reduce deforestation. It has also committed $83.2 million to REDD since its launch in 2008.
Some companies are also using forestry projects to help offset their emissions. For example, through the collaboration of the Bolivian government, the Nature Conservancy, Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza, and three energy companies (Bolivia American Electric Power, BP, and PacifiCorp) the logging rights in areas bordering a national park were eliminated, thus preventing the release of up to 5.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years. The project has also created economic opportunities for local communities, such as eco-tour guides and park ranger jobs.
Reducing consumption is unlikely to be a key strategy for addressing climate change in nations like the UAE. But it is partly unnecessary. By pushing forward with key technologies for the future while taking advantage of low-cost emissions reductions now (like energy efficiency and forest preservation), we can beat back the effects of climate change without radically altering our lifestyle.
But for that to happen, places with high carbon footprints will have to step up and help provide support for international efforts. It is unfair to ask poor countries in Africa, or middle-income and rapidly developing countries like Brazil or Indonesia, to foot the whole bill to address climate change. Norway has shown, as a high-income country with large petro-resources, how carbon footprints can be reduced through collaboration, rather than sacrifice.
That is a message that other countries need to take up. In the global struggle to address climate change, success largely depends on every nation's involvement.
Michael Livermore is an adjunct professor at the school of law at New York University and the executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity