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NEWS: What future for land use in the climate negotiations?


Outsiders and newcomers to the United Nations climate negotiations are easily overwhelmed by the complexity of discussions around land use and forestry. But this might change in 2015.

Plants sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their roots, stems and leaves. When cut or burned, that carbon is again released into the atmosphere. For this and other reasons, forests and other land uses have for a long time been discussed in the United Nations convention on climate change as part of both the cause and the solution for climate change.

Over the years, however, the negotiations and agreements around land use and forests have become increasingly complicated. Different rules apply to developed and developing countries. Even among developed countries, different rules apply to those who have ratified the Kyoto Protocol and those who have not. And the ways of counting and measuring reduced or avoided emissions, and getting compensation for them, vary greatly.

But all this could change rather soon. During the climate summit which is taking place in Warsaw (11-22 November), a high level panel discussed how to integrate land use and forestry issues in the new climate agreement, which is expected by 2015. This new agreement should be “applicable to all”, which some countries interpret as the end of the “firewall” between developed and developing countries.

More than 30 countries made statements during the event, and some common themes emerged. A vast majority of countries emphasised the key role played by terrestrial ecosystems in adapting to climate change and defended a more holistic approach to land use – looking not just at mitigation potential, but also at food security, livelihoods and disaster risk reduction.

Most countries also emphasised the need for flexibility, transparency and comparability. National circumstances are incredibly diverse, so any system that seeks to be applicable to countries rich and poor, tropical or temperate, will need to be adaptable.

Wetlands, and in particular peatlands, are paradigmatic in this respect. They occur in almost all countries of the world, in almost all latitudes, and they are used for almost all key categories in national emissions inventories: they are used in agriculture, forestry and energy. Wetland ecosystems can store carbon above and below ground. And they can contribute to both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Wetlands will therefore be the litmus test of whichever system is adopted in 2015. If the system allows for the full accounting of emissions from wetlands caused by human activity and provides incentives for the sustainable use of these ecosystems, it can only be successful.

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