Corruption, Human Rights Violations and Unchecked Pollution: At COP21, Growing Concern Over UN’s Forest Climate Program
As global leaders gather for the United Nations conference on climate change (COP21) in Paris, some of the world’s largest consumer goods companies and governments have announced new initiatives to protect the world’s last rainforests from the expansion of forest commodity production, including development for palm oil and pulp and paper.
On the opening day of the Paris climate talks, global consumer goods brands Unilever and Marks & Spencer have announced plans to join a major public-private partnership, launched and supported by 17 countries including the US, Norway, Indonesia, Brazil and Colombia. This public-private partnership seeks to financially reward heavily forested countries or regions that adopt comprehensive policies to reduce deforestation which is resulting from the production of forest commodities like palm oil and pulp commodities. This show of support by corporate and government interests comes amidst a years-long global consumer campaign which is pressuring major brands like Unilever, Marks & Spencer and PepsiCo, all heavy users of palm oil, to adopt stronger deforestation policies.
Forest issues have been a source of focus in the first days of the Paris climate talks, as governments put financial support behind efforts to reduce emissions from the destruction of the world’s forests. Recently, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as Jokowi, responded to the annual Indonesian forest fire crisis, which reached historic levels of destruction this year. President Jokowi is due to issue a regulation while in Paris that will halt carbon intensive development on peatlands; however, this will only succeed if properly implemented and enforced––something that hasn’t been done before.
At the climate talks, Germany, Norway and the UK just committed $5bn USD into forest programs over the next six years, with funds earmarked to go to forest climate programs and to the REDD+ (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of forests) program––a scheme expected to be finalized at this year’s climate talks after 10 years of debate.
REDD+ remains a controversial mechanism to mitigate climate change. Critics have raised serious concerns that the scheme will fuel corruption and human rights violations, including the displacement of indigenous communities in tropical forest countries that currently lack the capacity to enforce adequate safeguards. Despite today’s pledge of funds from the European countries, concerns remain that REDD+ will be primarily financed through carbon trading and used by developed countries as an offset mechanism to allow ongoing “business as usual” development models––effectively allowing the worst polluters to continue unchecked.
Ginger Cassady, Forest Program Director with Rainforest Action Network, said,
The commitments that world leaders are and will continue to make in Paris are critical to stabilizing the climate. There is a clear landscape of opportunity for Indonesia to secure support and provide new incentives to communities and governments that are taking real action to secure land rights and protect rainforests and peatlands from the expansion of industrial palm oil and pulp and paper plantations.
However, there is a risk that these pledges from governments and brands will amount to nothing but lip service. We know that the devil is in the details and the real test is change on the ground. To succeed, climate solutions must be created in partnership with local communities, implementation must be global in scale, transparent, verifiable, include robust protections for Indigenous Peoples, human rights and the workers themselves, and involve collaborative efforts to enforce moratoriums that immediately protect the world’s last forest frontiers, including the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh, Sumatra.
Forest destruction is responsible for approximately 20% of global carbon emissions. Continually, Indonesia is at the head of forest loss internationally, making forest protection in that country a top global priority for stabilizing the climate. Collectively, forest fires in Indonesia are one of the largest single sources of carbon pollution worldwide and thus the recurring fire crisis is the responsibility of everyone. Governments, as well as the powerful multinational corporations driving the expansion of palm oil and pulp plantations, must tackle this climate disaster head-on.
Recent announcements by President Jokowi indicate his willingness to drive forward change. Jokowi seeks to address the impacts of the annual fire crises, caused in part by plantation development on Indonesia’s peatlands, but he can not do it alone. This is not just about government action: massive global companies are intricately linked to many of the world’s largest economies and largest greenhouse gas emitters. These private, profit-driven entities must be held accountable for the central role they have to play in saving our planet from climate catastrophe.