Colloquium on Forests and Climate

New Thinking for Transformational Change

24 September 2014, Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University, New York

Colloquium on Forests & Climate: Daniel Nepstad on environmental & social integrity


Watch Daniel Nepstad (Executive Director, Earth Innovation Institute) speaking at the Colloquium on Forests & Climate.

Colloquium on Forests & Climate: New Thinking for Transformational Change, Columbia University, New York. #forestsclimate

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Daniel Nepstad’s speech:

Thank you, Earth Institute. Our names are quite close. Thank you, CIFOR, for organizing this really stimulating dialogue.

I want to go back 30 years to what was then a very grubby little town called Paragominas on the Amazon frontier. When I got there to start my career in the Amazon, there were 100 sawmills. The sawmill trucks would come out of the forests, and sometimes there would be bodies strapped to the top of them if they’d been crushed by a tree or caught in a land fight. It was a really raw frontier, and I found it fascinating, once my body adjusted to the environment.

I went back there with a delegation from Central Kalimantan about a year ago. This was a delegation of provincial government people, of private sector people, of district leaders (bupati). Because in our program in Indonesia, no one really believed that Brazil had done what it has done. Which is to radically slow deforestation and, at the same time, increase agricultural production by a half – more for beef. And during that week going around with the delegation, we went back to Paragominas. And my friend, Persu Lima, who had put on a little weight but his cows were really putting on weight. Back in 1984, a typical pasture on Persu’s farm was producing about 30 kilos per year of beef, and now he’s up to 150. That’s five-fold. That’s the direction we need to go. It’s that innovation that is behind the fact that Brazil is one of the top success stories today in climate change mitigation. With about three, three and a half, getting close to four with the new numbers coming out this year, gigatons, billion tons, of CO2 emissions avoided. Putting it right up in the ranks with the best initiatives.

If you look at this week’s Economist, looking out to 2020, the Economist ranks Brazil as having the greatest potential through continued reductions in deforestation to mitigate climate change. The greatest. So, although land use is a shrinking piece of the total emission pie, it is the big player for near-term solutions. And I want to drill into how we can seize that opportunity and bring the pieces together so we actually have a bigger success story to tell in a few years.

I want to drill into how we can seize that opportunity and bring the pieces together so we actually have a bigger success story to tell in a few years.

Let me begin, though, with just a quick segue into this connection between climate change, forests, and farming. I think the big news we have today is that there’s a lot of evidence that climate change has begun, and extreme weather events are linked to that. It came out in the IPCC report. And we’re seeing reductions in agricultural production because of extreme events. So, instead of the gradual, long-term increases in temperature that could actually open up space for agricultural production, we’re focused and seeing a different picture today: climate change leading to extreme events and crop failures.

We’re seeing this enormous explosion in consumption that John [Holdren] referred to, with incomes driving way more than population growth the increased demand, especially in emerging economies. So, although the average Chinese consumes maybe one sixth of an average American, the growth and per capita consumption are really taking place in the emerging economies, putting upward pressure on demand for land-based production. We have climate change reducing production and increasing demand saying we need much more production. Most of the potential for that production is in the tropics. The estimates vary, but over the next 20 years most of the expansion in agricultural production will be in the tropics.

We have climate change reducing production and increasing demand needing much more production. Most of the potential for that production is in the tropics.

We can think of that production as happening two ways. It can happen vertically through intensification, as Cheryl [Palm] referred to, or it can happen horizontally into native ecosystems. What we’re in the midst of right now is a shift to favor vertical increases in production. That’s quite exciting. I think it’s one of the most exciting things announced yesterday at the Climate Summit.

We’re in the midst of a shift toward vertical increases in production through intensification. This is exciting.

Let’s drill into that piece. How can we reinforce the vertical increase in production to leave more forest out there to have an even greater success story to tell about forests and climate change mitigation in a few years? I would put forward that one of the biggest challenges we have today is fragmentation. There’s so many different processes underway to get at this cluster of issues.

Agriculture, increased production, reducing deforestation, keeping natural capital going, making the switch to the green economy. A profusion of initiatives. And then we have a single, unified, global process that is marching along at a rather glacial pace – sort of a geological-timescale climate negotiations. We need to have a strong Paris agreement, and we all need to push for that, but it is clear that the big advances are happening from the bottom up, from regional approaches, many of them no one really saw coming.

If I were a farmer with a small cattle herd in Mato Grosso, I would be expected to understand eight different definitions of forests and success in slowing deforestation.

Let me illustrate that fragmentation from the perspective of an Amazon farmer. If I were a farmer growing with a small cattle herd in Mato Grosso, on this issue of deforestation alone, I would be expected to understand eight different definitions of forests and forest success, that is, success in slowing deforestation. I’d be expected to understand the Forest Code and what a legal reserve is, and what an area of permanent preservation is. What a CRA is, a PRA is, a CAR – these are all elements of the new Forest Code; the fact that I can maybe trade my reserve elsewhere. I’d be asked to understand what high-conservation-value forests are in the context of the Round Table for Responsible Soy. I’d be asked to understand what REDD+ is, what a reference level is, what zero net deforestation is in the case of the Consumer Goods Forum. All of this jumble of issues, of definitions of success, just for one issue – the forest piece. And the fact is, most farmers don’t understand those things and they’re trying their best to get by and make ends meet. The big guys are doing much better, I’d say, than the smaller guys.

Fragmentation is one of the most serious threats to the decline in deforestation. And it is everywhere, I assure you.

This fragmentation is one of the most serious threats to that downward decline in deforestation that Carlos showed us. Because we have a profusion of voluntary, private sector initiatives like the Soy Moratorium, the Beef Moratorium, that came together with a profusion of policy initiatives to make the phenomenal transition: 70 percent reduction in deforestation and 3.2 billion tons of emissions reductions, with increased production.

How do we overcome this fragmentation? And it is everywhere, I assure you. Generally I would say it is a mismatch, as Eduardo was referring to, between a corporate risk-aversion paradigm, which is really what is driving a lot of the corporate commitments to remove deforestation from their supply chains. There’s that approach where you really want to make sure that no one who is in your direct supply chain is going to cause you a headache or a headline. Greenpeace has been a champion in creating corporate risk, and we owe a lot of credit to Greenpeace’s efforts for making that connection visible, transparent and potentially damaging to companies.

But then there’s public policy and government, civil society, focused on the broader development agenda. Alleviating poverty, achieving food security, looking at the entire landscape defined within political boundaries. How do we bring these worlds together?

We are moving into a world in which we need bottom-up, regionally attuned solutions to get to the scale of solution that we need to fix these very urgent problems.

I would suggest that we are moving into a world in which we need bottom-up, regionally attuned solutions to get to the scale of solution that we need to fix these very urgent problems. I want to give just a few examples of those.

About a year and a half ago, we pulled together leaders from soy and beef and finance, regional governments, state governments, NGOs, into a room, a meeting led by IPAM. By the end of the day there had been a lot of convergence around a single definition of success in addressing deforestation. It was remarkable to me that these very diverse sectors all recognized as the end to eliminate illegal deforestation, the end to eliminate labor abuses, forced labor. There was lots of convergence across that table, lots of agreement. And now we’re very close, and a number of companies have already signed onto a single definition of success that basically says, we need a stair-step approach to have an Amazon that by 2020 is down to 10 percent of its historical deforestation rate, and that clearing is compensated by new forest. Over time, that means the Amazon would become carbon neutral as those forests accumulate in area and are pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

That delegation from Central Kalimantan has got a similar process going on. I was with Governor Teras Nerang who spoke in plenary yesterday [at the UN Climate Summit], who had pulled together 20 palm oil companies in Jakarta. He is also a leader of the Dayak Council of Indonesia. He basically said, “We’re going to get our act together. On our part, we’re going to streamline your permit processes so you don’t have to wait three to five years to get your permit for plantation. But you are going to only expand onto already cleared lands.” There were three CEOs in the room out of these 20 companies. It is government coming together with the private sector around a big-scale initiative, Central Kalimantan, the entire province.

I had a breakfast with some of the corporate leaders who made the announcements yesterday. As they get into this agenda of moving to zero deforestation for supply chains, they realize that you have to have government at the table. What this means is, instead of taking 30 years to get from Persu Lima’s ranch and 30 kilos a hectare, clearing forest willy-nilly to get to 150 per hectare per year, with forests conserved and restoring, Indonesia could leapfrog. Kenya could leapfrog, Mexico. We could make this thing work.

If you look at the New York Declaration on Forests, climate advisors have estimated that by 2030 just the commitments in there would be four to nine billion tons of CO2 a year less going into the atmosphere. That’s getting to the scale of solution we need, and on the timescale that we need, as we do the very deep retooling of our energy grid, especially in the emerging economies of China and India. This is a reason for hope, but we need a revolution. And I’ll end with five key points that I think are needed to realize this potential.

We need regional definitions of success because that’s where you get engagement with the key actors that are connected to the ground. This single definition of success has to celebrate innovation.

First, I think, is the need for a single definition of success that is not global – the principles are global – but is regional. We need regional definitions because that’s where you get engagement with the key actors that are connected to the ground. If you can reinforce that with a global climate treaty, fantastic, but I think we have to be realistic. There is a chance that we’re not going to get the treaty we need in Paris – a very good chance. This single definition of success has to celebrate innovation. And that means drawing on understand and reinforcing, supporting the native and traditional populations that are using resources today in low-impact, extremely efficient ways.

It’s a national event. It’s in all the newspapers. It’s on the television programs. Everyone knows, oh, are we doing better or worse on deforestation? The population cares.

We need to implement monitoring in a way that’s incredibly cheap and accessible. A big part of Brazil’s success story is this phenomenal intensification of cattle capacity so that we have a shrinking area of pasture as beef production increases – opening up space for agricultural expansion without clearing. That’s one piece of it. But the other piece is that the INPE project, as Carlos mentioned, puts out on the grid, on the Internet, all of the new deforestation polygons, in high resolution, every year. It’s a national event. It’s in all the newspapers. It’s on the television programs. Everyone knows, oh, are we doing better or worse? And the population cares. And we have all of the technology. The systems are there. Peru has three. Colombia is ready to go. Indonesia has a great system. But the data are difficult to get, and I think these do have to be official, nationally owned systems to feed into this process.

We need to shift from the paradigm of corporate risk to a paradigm of sustainable development. We run a serious risk of creating poor zones: They may be free of deforestation, but they’re also free of investment.

The next thing we need – and that is a big question, I think, of how you do the science, how you develop these systems so that you get to the decision like Gilberto Câmara did in 2004 when he said, we’re going to put all this online. We need to shift from the paradigm of corporate risk to a paradigm of sustainable development. Today we run a serious risk of creating poor zones. They may be free of deforestation, but they’re also free of investment. We’ve seen many multimillion-dollar investments avoid the Amazon – too risky, might get hammered. So those jobs are leaving. The farmers who are producing well and want a good market, they have less of a chance to sell those products. It’s a cycle of poverty that is sort of the dark side of a corporate risk strategy. I am sure that the scale of finance that’s needed, especially to make sure that smallholders and traditional populations are not cut out of the commodification of tropical landscapes, most of that is going to come from the private sector.

Most of the finance that’s needed, especially to make sure that smallholders and traditional populations are not cut out of the commodification of tropical landscapes, is going to come from the private sector.

Finally, I think we need to think about creative new ways to reinforce this broader transition. People who understand China far better than I do say that if China really connected the fact that it imports 10 percent of the global soy crop each year, and the links between that soy crop – or its palm oil imports, it’s the second largest importer of palm oil each year – with the emissions that those are associated with, they would do something about it. If China were even to hint that they were going to close their ports to commodities with deforestation embedded within, that would revolutionize the transition to low deforestation agricultural expansion.

If China were even to hint that they were going to close their ports to commodities with embedded deforestation – that would revolutionize the transition to low-deforestation agricultural expansion.

I think we need to go from a geological timescale of transition to an ecological and social timescale of transition. We do need more food, more forests and natural ecosystems generally. We need better livelihoods, we need fewer emissions, and the big opportunity over the next few years is on the land. We can do this thing.

Thank you.

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