COP21 – WHRC and the Paris Agreement
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Paris during the first two weeks of December, produced a historic global agreement to limit emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases. A delegation of eight WHRC scientists and I went to Paris armed with the science to push negotiators in the right direction. The momentum they and thousands from 195 nations brought to the negotiators culminated in the Paris Agreement.
The core of that agreement is a commitment to uphold the emissions-reductions pledges made by 186 nations over the past several years. Although these pledges are voluntary, it is mandatory to report emissions annually to the UN, and to make revised, more stringent pledges every 5 years. Beyond these elements, the agreement provides funding for mitigation and adaptation efforts in the developing world, and for preservation of tropical forests, a cause which the WHRC has championed for years. Although ambitious and unprecedented, the emissions reductions pledged in the Paris agreement are nowhere near sufficient to limit global warming to the oft-cited 2-degree goal, much less the more desirable but more challenging goal of 1.5o. Please read my extended analysis of the Paris Agreement.
As the negations proceeded, WHRC scientists discussed their work and the issues we work on at a series of events at the COP21 venue in Le Bourget. Highlights of those events are discussed in this month’s newsletter. Please see full coverage of WHRC.
Thanks as always for your interest and support.
Left: WHRC’s booth attracted numerous people to engage with scientists and staff. Right: Phil Duffy with former Vice President Al Gore. On reaching a climate agreement, Gore quoted the poet Wallace Stevens: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”
WHRC’s tour de force on forest carbon
One of WHRC’s primary contributions in Paris was the presentation of a tour de force of studies that demonstrate the importance of tropical forests and forest-dwelling peoples in the fight against global climate change. Four major new papers from WHRC make the scientific case for conservation and restoration of tropical forests in controlling both global and regional climate, providing evidence that large-scale reductions in deforestation are logistically possible, and suggesting that indigenous peoples are critical partners in maintaining tropical forests intact. In addition, experts increasingly have at their disposal the technological tools required to accurately measure and monitor the extent and health of these forests. The papers and their associated events created a flurry of interest among conference participants and the media.
A few days before the start of COP21, a commentary by Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton and others published in Nature Climate Change outlined the potential for reducing global CO2 emissions by halting and reversing tropical deforestation. In conjunction with a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, this can greatly enhance the likelihood of limiting global warming to 2oC. As the conference progressed, Dr. Houghton was impressed by the fact that “the details of land-use change and carbon emissions are of interest to far more than the 3 or 4 people in the world who’ve been working on the topic for decades. Rather, there is widespread and growing interest, in part because the nations of the world are beginning to construct their own carbon budgets.”
A major focus of WHRC and of Senior Scientist Scott Goetz was to help ensure that reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) remained part of the Paris Agreement. REDD+ is particularly important to the mission of WHRC because it centers on forests and the benefits they provide which include not only climate change mitigation but also habitat for biodiversity, sustainable resources for people, and various other ecosystem services like clean air and water. As Dr. Goetz noted, “for REDD+ implementation to succeed and gain the financing it needs, it has to support people who make their livelihoods in forest environments.”
Dr. Goetz also led a unique synthesis issued just in time for COP21 in the journal Environmental Research Letters that reviews the current state of the art and future prospects for implementing the operational aspects of REDD+ related to forest monitoring. “The synthesis,” according to Dr. Goetz, “lays out a framework for advancing all REDD+ components than can be informed by a combination of field measurements and satellite remote sensing. The fact that REDD+ is included in the Paris Agreement means we can now move into advancing it’s implementation in tropical forest nations.”
Associate Scientist Wayne Walker’s has recently investigated the role that indigenous people play in forest preservation. His recent “Tropical Forest Carbon in Indigenous Territories: A Global Analysis” is a first-of-its-kind study examining forest carbon storage across the tropical forests, revealing that indigenous territories by themselves contain more than one-fifth of the carbon stored aboveground, an amount equal to more than three times the annual emissions to the atmosphere in 2014. At a panel discussion during COP21, Dr. Walker was joined by indigenous leaders from the Amazon, Central America, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), eloquently describing the role their communities play in maintaining forests. As one indigenous leader said, “With science maybe they will listen to us,” a view that demonstrates the role WHRC plays in bringing cutting-edge science to bear on globally relevant issues. “For these peoples,” said Dr. Duffy, “like those of the small island states, effective solutions to climate change are essential to preservation of their culture and way of life, if not their very existence.”
WHRC scientists also attended the Global Landscapes Forum, a gathering of over 3,000 people aiming to forge solutions to climate and development challenges through sustainable land use. Associate Scientist Alessandro Baccini was featured on the panel, “Pixel perfection for carbon detection: How technologies and communities can curb global emissions from land-use change.” Dr. Baccini is co-author of an article just published in Global Change Biology showing that between 2004 and 2009, Brazil cut its annual forest emissions by over 1 billion tons of carbon through a combination of public policy changes, increased transparency, improved law enforcement and voluntary actions in the private sector. “Brazil shows it can be done, and done quickly,” said Dr. Baccini. “It requires strong political will, however, and that’s an ingredient that is too often missing, not only in tropical countries but also in developed countries, which need to help finance the effort.”
The IPAM – WHRC Agreement
During an evening event hosted by WHRC board members Wil Merck and Connie Roosevelt, WHRC and the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) doubled down on their long-standing relationship by signing a five-year memorandum of understanding. The MOU is designed to identify and pursue new cooperative projects and programs that will create effective dialogue between science and policy in Brazil.
Like all good relationships, WHRC and IPAM’s is based on similar interests and complementary strengths. By combining the WHRC’s focus on science with IPAM’s expertise and influence on Brazilian environmental policy, the two organizations can have an impact beyond what either could achieve alone.
Keynote speaker and Amazonian indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara closed out the evening, observing that “when nature destroys something that man has built, it is called a catastrophe; when man destroys something that nature has built, it is called development.”
WHRC scientists serve as official DRC delegates at COP21
Led by Assistant Scientist Glenn Bush and Project Manager Melaine Kermarc, WHRC’s Projet Equateur drew attention at various events at which the DRC delegation showcased green development opportunities through the emerging national Green Climate Fund investment strategy.
The management of Projet Equateur, whose mission is to integrate agricultural development and biomass energy strategies with forest sector conservation and the practicalities of making REDD+ work, shared its experience with private sector investors on the risks and opportunities for green investment projects.
Permafrost and dangerous thresholds in the Arctic
WHRC’s research on global river chemistry also drew attention in Paris. Speaking about his recent black carbon study, Senior Scientist Max Holmes explained that “the chemistry of rivers is like the chemistry of blood; it gives a doctor clues about the health of individual, and it provides a year-over-year comparison. If we start to see increases in the age of carbon in the river,” he added, “that could be an indication of widespread permafrost flaw and release of carbon.”
WHRC scientists Sue Natali, Brendan Rogers, and Seth Spawn contributed to the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) report titled “Thresholds and Closing Windows: Risks of Irreversible Cryosphere Climate Change,” which was the subject of a lively press conference. The report concerns the emissions reductions pledges (INDCs) that nations made at the outset of COP21 but that will not be enough to prevent the crossing of dangerous thresholds in the Arctic. At an official COP21 side event focused on the Arctic, Dr. Natali told The Washington Post that “carbon losses from thawing permafrost currently are not accounted for in our global climate models, and they need to be…if we are going to hit our emissions targets.”
On her way to Paris, Dr. Natali was interviewed by PRI’s The World. She was accompanied by her son, Clancy, a Martha’s Vineyard high school junior, who has become something of a climate change activist. Of his age group Clancy said, “If they see that their peers are interested in this stuff and working on it, they’ll get an interest in it too,” adding that past generations have “put us into this position. So this current generation needs to try to fix that.”
Dr. Duffy joins climate leaders in an open letter to presidential candidates
In an open letter to US candidates for president, Dr. Duffy was a lead signatory of more than 70 climate and clean energy leaders, who wrote that “the global transformation of our energy system away from fossil fuels is both a moral imperative, grounded in science, and one of the greatest economic opportunities of our time.” Among the many press conferences surrounding COP21 was one featuring the letter and the urgency of adopting clean energy.
The United Nations Foundation and The Nature Conservancy held an event at which participants were interested in promoting land carbon storage as a climate mitigation strategy, and Dr. Duffy called attention to its scientific significance, pointing out that:
- the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly shows that, to have any hope of limiting climate change to 2o, we must drive total global greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2100;
- because it will probably be impossible to eliminate emissions from some sectors, others will therefore need to absorb greenhouse gases;
- no sector has the potential to absorb more greenhouse gases than the land sector.
WHRC Travel Opportunity
Mekong River Science Expedition
In March of 2016 the Woods Hole Research Center and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will offer the Mekong River Science Expedition, a rare opportunity for guests to join the scientists of the Global Rivers Observatory to “the mother of all waters,” the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. This unique trip will allow guests a first-hand experience of this extraordinary ecosystem. Participants will see how scientists study the ecology and chemistry of the Mekong River and contribute to discussions about maximizing the societal impacts of the Global Rivers Observatory. For more information, please contact Beth Bagley, 508-444-1517 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institution where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the globe.