Well, some people will say, there certainly are trees in the Arctic region. So maybe the title should say that there are no trees at the North Pole. But what have trees to do with Greenpeace’s campaign to stop reckless drilling for oil in the Arctic anyways? As it turns out, quite a bit.
But let’s start at the beginning. For the second year in a row, I spent the best part of November at the international climate negotiations organized by the United Nations. While the overall outcome made it clear that many governments still pay more attention to the interests of corporations than to their people, we saw some rays of hope in one area - Forests.
At the same time as the Polish government was busy hosting an international coal summit running parallel to the climate summit, the negotiations finally agreed on the technical details of the global plan to stop deforestation and keep our last remaining forests standing. This plan, called REDD or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in United Nations speak, has been in the making since 2005.
After writing about the painstakingly slow pace of progress last year, this year countries resolved some of their differences. Amongst other things, they decided how deforestation reductions will be measured, reported and verified. They also agreed on ways to ensure that safeguards for indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights as well as to protect the forests’ biodiversity are reported. In a nutshell, we now have have a book of rules that at least provides some minimal guidance to allow countries to get real about protecting the world’s forests.
So what’s the catch? Well, although all this represents much needed progress, there is still an elephant in the room. And this is where the Arctic comes in. Everyone agrees that we need healthy forests to prevent catastrophic climate change and to protect the livelihoods of those depending on forests (which is everyone, really). What not everyone agrees on though is how to pay for all that.
Implementing REDD will cost several billions. A year. At the moment, that money is nowhere to be seen so a growing number of countries would like to see forests being preserved only in exchange for rights to burn more fossil fuels somewhere else - or offsetting as they call it. They basically want polluters to pay for forest protection but then use that payment to compensate for their continued emissions from burning fossil fuels.
While 30 of my colleagues still face long prison sentences for having stood up for the principle that we need to leave the majority of fossil fuels in the ground, some countries would like to turn forest protection into a licence for even more drilling. And oil companies love the idea. Shell, Gazprom’s partner in crime in the Arctic decided earlier this year to purchase 500.000 forest offset credits rather than truly reducing their own emissions. Because let’s be completely clear here: By definition using forest protection as an offset or license to burn more fossil fuels elsewhere does not reduce overall emissions. In the best case scenario it merely shifts them from one place to another. Science, however, unmistakably tells us that we can only reign in climate change if we do both, stop burning fossil fuels and stop deforestation (click here to find out more). Replacing one with the other will simply not be enough. Forest protection must always be additional to other emissions reductions.
Click here to Englarge Carbon Math infographic
We only have two remaining areas of real wilderness on this planet: parts of our forests and the Arctic. We cannot afford playing one against the other.
The next two years of climate negotiations must set the stage for a phase-out of fossil fuels by mid-century. Countries must make sure that the rule book on forest protection that was agreed in Warsaw does not put this objective in peril. Governments must commit to finance deforestation reductions without allowing companies like Shell or Gazprom to greenwash their dirty business by using forest protection as a license to get the last drop of oil out of the ground.
Sebastian Bock is a Political Advisor at Greenpeace International. Follow him on Twitter at @sebastianbock