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The IPCC report: What does it mean for the world’s forests?

We are in a critical decade for climate action.
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Iddy Farmer/CIFOR
Iddy Farmer/CIFOR

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The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fifth climate assessment report last week, confirming speculation that human activities are the main cause of climate change since the mid-20th century. But what does this mean for the world’s forests?

The executive summary highlighted overwhelming evidence for continued warming of the planet, saying that temperatures are likely to rise by between 0.3 and 4.8 degrees Celsius (0.5 to 8.6 Fahrenheit) by the late 21st century.

The IPCC has used a carbon budget approach — looking at how much carbon we can emit before we exceed the 2-degrees Celsius limit — as the framework for assessing the level of mitigation required. To meet the 2-degree Celsius target, the total post-industrial emissions of carbon from all sources should be limited to 1,000 billion tonnes. About half of the budget has already been consumed.

While the report is clearly saying that we are not doing enough to solve the climate change problem, there are several lessons for forestry stakeholders (many of which will become clearer as sections of the report are released later in 2013 and in early 2014):

Emissions from agriculture and forests need to be reduced

Taken together, forestry and agriculture (the leading driver of deforestation) currently make up around 30% of global emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. At previous U.N. meetings there has been a big effort to put in place an international mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation (REDD+) but while this has been on the table since 2005, issues of verification of emissions and lack of finance means it is still not yet fully functional.

Emissions from the agricultural sector have unfortunately not been privy to such high-levels of discussion at the international level. The crux of this issue is that many countries are hesitant to burden the agricultural sector with additional environmental responsibilities. Yet there is an ever-growing need to decrease emissions from this sector as the world prepares to welcome and feed 3 billion new people in the coming 50 years.

In November, when government representatives convene in Warsaw for the next meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, there are two immediate actions countries need to take: firstly, they need to make progress on reducing deforestation emissions by overcoming the final sticking points on verification and finance, and secondly discussions need to begin on how to incorporate agriculture and land use change in international climate agreements.

So far progress on addressing agriculture under the UNFCCC discussions has been slow, but we are hoping this year’s Global Landscapes Forum will add impetus to addressing mitigation and adaptation challenges in this sector.

What about the recent lull in surface temperature?

Any report about climate change cannot be without some controversy and there have been suggestions among climate change sceptics and deniers that science has failed to explain a recent lull in the surface temperature increase.

Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends. For example, the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998-2012), which began with a strong El Niño, is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951, the IPCC report said.

Very recent work by Yu Kosaka and Shang Ping Xie from Scripps Institution of Oceanography that was not included in the IPCC review has shown that the weaker warming trend in recent years is due to cooling in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean associated with decadal cycles of La Niña. Since this element of the climate system is cyclical, it is reasonable to expect that the longer term warming trend will continue unabated.

This new IPCC report shows that this is a critical decade for climate action. And at the very least it should provide new impetus for international cooperation to solve climate change issues that have already been on the table for many years.

CIFOR will be analyzing the sections of the IPCC report and their implications for forests as they are available to the public in late 2013/early 2014.

Louis Verchot leads CIFOR’s research on forests and the environment. Contact him at l.verchot@cgiar.org 

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