Jia Min: Why forest sciences didn’t feature in forest policy discussions

Apologies for taking so long – but to make up for the delay, on my internship which I’m currently busy with I did manage to meet a member of the Singapore delegation who was in charge of tracking LULUCF-related issues. They mentioned there wasn’t much happening during this COP related to forests, though agriculture will be something key to look out for since they are starting some work on this (the 1st committee for the Koronivia joint work on agriculture program met regularly during the COP). Also, next year there may be more to look out for because of the integration of LULUCF-related issues into the calculation of greenhouse gas inventories (or something like that!)

Either way, in this post I will describe briefly my findings related to how forest science is used/not used in forest policy. My first caveat would be that there was very little forest policy being spoken of in the conference. At COP24, I found that forests are mainly relevant in international negotiations in three ways:

  1. As part of the larger issue of land use (i.e. mixed in with agriculture, the need to generate electricity (through hydroelectric dams, solar panels, wind turbines) to support growth, land reclamation etc.)
  2. As part of the climate solution (one statistic from the IPCC report that really caught on was that “natural climate solutions” could provide up to 30% of emission reductions by 2030, but they were only being allocated a disproportionately low 1% of the funding by banks, for example)
  3. As part of the biodiversity issue under a partner convention to the UNFCCC under the UNEP: The Convention on Biological Diversity, which includes the Aichi Biodiversity Targets which expire/are due 2020.

Another caveat would be that I was mostly interested in natural science and scientists and listened with an attention to the natural sciences, despite how matters of policy are often relegated to the social scientists. Despite these disparities I observed rather interesting tensions between the two (broadly speaking) fields. Scientists of each appear to hold small but bitter grudges as to why they are not more well-regarded than the other. However it appears that social scientists feel more slighted when it comes to climate science and policy, while natural scientists feel more slighted when it comes to forest science and policy. It’s just a hypothesis at the moment, so I don’t have much evidence, but it would be worth seeing how IPCC’s upcoming Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL) will be received, and the extent to which forests will be featured. But it’s clear that the current slant of the special report is very much towards food and soil, but not what’s above the soil. (The breakdown of chapters can be found here, and if you search “forest” you’ll find only 3 returns: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/04/Decision_Outline_SR_LandUse.pdf). And for more evidence that forest policy has been somewhat relegated to the social sciences, check out the bibliography of CIFOR’s publication on “Transforming REDD+: Lessons and New Directions”. It’s an impressive publication, especially Chapters 1 and 5 which I consider ground-breaking to include in such a publication, but it’s also easy to see how seldom the natural sciences are included in the forest policy discussion.

Observation 1. Forest science is not often used on its own but compiled and compared with other data to produce tools for deciding how best to use a particular piece of land. Such tools include this and UNCCD’s tool to achieve land degradation neutrality, the latter of which I learnt about at the WWF event on 6 Dec about uniting the Rio conventions). Scientists more or less acknowledge that their work will never lead to the protection of forests, only the management of forests, because the value of forests is often difficult to establish as higher than any other use for that plot of land (e.g. biofuels, banks, agriculture). What then is referenced and introduced at these climate agreements is data aggregation and monitoring tools like Global Forest Watch which monitors tree cover (loss) and who said at a WWF event on harnessing the potential of land-use, “if all else fails (wrt climate action) we just have to keep the data coming”, though of course it acknowledged that we need more than data. That said, improvements in monitoring can do more than help us achieve better accuracy. For example, differentiating between forests clear cut for plantations vs. forests helps us understand what’s driving land use change, beyond what land use changes are taking place – serving policy in ways beyond mere impact measurement.

Observation 2a. Forest science is more often judged to be useful at the scale of national consultative processes rather than at venues such as the Paris Rulebook. This may explain why there is so little mention of forests, so few ecologists that I managed to find at the COP, and so few speakers familiar with forest science, because of the contextuality of the topic and the territorial nature of it. Climate and ocean impacts will also vary with contexts, but perhaps how forests fight for land and power with other interests results in a different political landscape that deters it from being spoken about at the global scale. (I’m thinking of political ecologists like Homer-Dixon who would probably agree about the primacy of land in contributing to conflict.)

Observation 2b. Perhaps because of the “it depends” nature of forest ecology, the CIFOR scientists did explain how it’s really difficult to see if a particular REDD+ intervention really resulted in reduced carbon emissions/increased absorption. There is a lack of a control case in most studies (due to the variability between sites), and ethical concerns with designating controls (e.g. is it fair to have one community be deprived of the REDD+ opportunity and another not be, just for the sake of establishing the success of the latter?). There’s also an issue of funding where negative assessment of a particular policy may jeopardise future funding for assessments.

Observation 3. No one really disagrees with the science – either forest science has become accepted, or no one really understands any of it and at the policy discussion level no one cares about where the science comes from anymore. There was someone who quoted the “4 per 1000” initiative and used it to establish how “easy” it would be to harness forest soils as a solution, though the falseness of the statement has been critiqued by many including Baveye et al. in 2018 – title is, “The “4 per 1000” initiative: A credibility issue for the soil science community?”.

I shall stop here! I wish I had more material to work with but really these are hypotheses for why there really aren’t that many references to forest-related natural science, and I hope it prompts new thinking!

Other points irrelevant to my research question

Though it’s difficult for me to reference all the talks, I would definitely recommend finding a chance to watch the livestream of the emotional and informative side event on “Brazil’s new administration and the Paris Agreement: challenging years ahead”, whereas Brazilian scientists and NGO members communicated their sadness and collectively urged for Brazil not to fall back to the years before the last 10 years when it became stabilised its emissions. I would also recommend listening to the press release for CIFOR’s book on Transforming REDD+ which I referenced above.

For reference the events and negotiations I went for are summarised below in this table. Please approach me if you require detailed notes: I type transcript-like documents but don’t often clean them up so don’t expect too much!

Monday (3/12) Tuesday (4/12) Wednesday (5/12) Thursday (6/12) Friday (7/12) Saturday (8/12)
9:00 RINGO RINGO RINGO
9:30 RINGO RINGO CGIAR – Transforming REDD+: Lessons and new directions, a new book RINGO
10:00 High-level segment SBI/SBSTA contact group – Modalities, work programme and functions Land use: The untapped opportunity in nationally-determined contributions Three conventions, one planet: The case for a New Deal for Nature and People APA agenda item 6: informal consultations on matters relating to the global stocktake referred to in Article 14 of the PA
10:30 High-level segment SBI/SBSTA contact group – Modalities, work programme and functions Land use: The untapped opportunity in nationally-determined contributions Three conventions, one planet: The case for a New Deal for Nature and People APA agenda item 6: informal consultations on matters relating to the global stocktake referred to in Article 14 of the PA
11:00 High-level segment Land use: The untapped opportunity in nationally-determined contributions Three conventions, one planet: The case for a New Deal for Nature and People
11:30 WRI – Securing a COP Decision to Raise Ambition RFN, AAS, Forests of the World: Approaching the Point of No Return. What NDCs of major rainforest countries means for rainforests. How do we get there: The need for a coordinated global mangrove conservation agenda Business for nature and climate: The case for an integrated approach
12:00 SBSTA informal consultations on research and systematic observation How do we get there: The need for a coordinated global mangrove conservation agenda
12:30 SBSTA informal consultations on research and systematic observation How do we get there: The need for a coordinated global mangrove conservation agenda
13:00 Coalition for Rainforest Nations – daily meeting + Planete Amazone – Urgent action (for the last 15 min) Climate Science for policy Talked to CIFOR person
13:30 WWF event: towards a successful pre-2020 stocktake Climate Science for policy Booths
14:00 WWF event: towards a successful pre-2020 stocktake IAI, DFG: From science to policy: achieving the SDGs in a 1.5 degree warmer world Climate Science for policy Booths
14:30 IAI, DFG: From science to policy: achieving the SDGs in a 1.5 degree warmer world Climate Science for policy Enhancing land use role in climate mitigation and adaptation
15:00 Booths SBSTA-IPCC Landscape Restoration for climate objectives, synergies and trade-offs across SDGs Enhancing land use role in climate mitigation and adaptation Abibimman Foundation – Dr. Peter Wadhams – IPCC Underestimates, Political Cowards
15:30 Booths SBSTA-IPCC Landscape Restoration for climate objectives, synergies and trade-offs across SDGs Enhancing land use role in climate mitigation and adaptation Promoting science-based climate policy
16:00 SBSTA-IPCC Landscape Restoration for climate objectives, synergies and trade-offs across SDGs Oceans and CO2 Promoting science-based climate policy
16:30 Cornell University – Science and policy coming together Pacific initiative for biodiversity, climate change and resilience Emerging science on global warming of 1.5°C at the science-policy interface Brazil’s new administration and the Paris Agreement: challenging years ahead Promoting science-based climate policy (a bit of Land use and forestry in the Paris Agreement: from science to policy implementation)
17:00 Gap report – panel with Hsu Emerging science on global warming of 1.5°C at the science-policy interface Brazil’s new administration and the Paris Agreement: challenging years ahead Promoting science-based climate policy
17:30 Gap report – panel with Hsu Emerging science on global warming of 1.5°C at the science-policy interface Brazil’s new administration and the Paris Agreement: challenging years ahead Land use and forestry in the Paris Agreement: from science to policy implementation
18:00 Brazil’s new administration and the Paris Agreement: challenging years ahead
18:30 IPCC looking ahead to SROCC and SRCC Burkina Faso, JVE: Towards Constructive Science-Policy Dialogues in West Africa What has REDD+ achieved? Evaluating the impacts of REDD+ interventions on forests and people
19:00 IPCC looking ahead to SROCC and SRCC Burkina Faso, JVE: Towards Constructive Science-Policy Dialogues in West Africa What has REDD+ achieved? Evaluating the impacts of REDD+ interventions on forests and people
19:30 Burkina Faso, JVE: Towards Constructive Science-Policy Dialogues in West Africa What has REDD+ achieved? Evaluating the impacts of REDD+ interventions on forests and people
20:00
20:30
21:00

 

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