As the second week of COP21 approaches its critical hour, there is one problematic link that still needs to be conclusively addressed by the delegates, despite being urgently voiced by scientists, several government officials, NGOs, and other UN agencies. It is the link that exists between climate change and biodiversity; or, specifically, biodiversity located within forest ecosystems that act as important carbon sinks and reservoirs.

Despite the huge efforts put forth by countries to agree on a bold commitment on emissions reductions, loss and damage, climate finance, and so forth, the operationalization of the UNFCCC tool tasked with mobilizing investments to protect forests as a means to reduce emissions, known as REDD-plus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), hangs in the balance, being held hostage by lack of consensus on what exactly such instrument shall entail. Indeed, as I write, all but two of the original references to the the latter have been removed from the Draft Paris Outcome of December 9. Article 3bis in particular has experienced a thorough re-modelling which on the one hand replaced any notion of REDD-plus ‘mechanism’ or ‘framework’ with a broader encouragement to “conserve and enhance” sinks and reservoirs of GHG, and on the other promptly caused several countries to show their disappointment for doing so. Whether we believe that REDD-plus would be enough to help solve the challenges at stake or not, however, we should definitely root for a meaningful instrument that goes in this direction to be included in the final agreement.

In order to understand why, let’s go back to the climate-biodiversity link and its importance for a moment. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) has evidenced that climate change can alter habitat for species, therefore impacting biological diversity, by inducing (i) shifts in habitat distribution that are not followed by species, (ii) shifts in species distributions that move them outside of their preferred habitats, and (iii) changes in habitat quality. Some habitats, it has been suggested, may even disappear entirely due to climate change, and for those that will not, changes in ecological interactions are going to be inevitable.


Climate change adaptation by wildlife under different IPCC scenarios for future temperatures. Source: IPCC 2014

Climate change adaptation by wildlife under different IPCC scenarios for future temperatures. Source: IPCC 2014

Even if this is not yet a widespread phenomenon, impacts on habitats have already been reported, with models suggesting that many species could be outside of their preferred habitats within the next few decades, thus increasing extinction risk. Although controversial, it has also been speculated that climate change may have already been responsible for the extinction of species, namely a number of species of frogs and toads in Central America. In turn, there is high agreement that habitat destruction, mainly through land use and deforestation, now accounts for about a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gases emissions, contributing to climate change, so that the most cost-effective mitigation options in forestry are suggested to be afforestation, sustainable forest management and reducing deforestation.

It is therefore easy to see how a great opportunity exists to create positive synergies to address what are probably the most significant current and future drivers of biodiversity loss, namely habitat destruction and climate change. In this regard, an evident trend in international environmental governance is represented by the establishment of economic instruments that create incentives to protect ecosystem services, thus promoting habitat conservation; when dealing with the need to mitigate climate change, this plainly means incentives to conserve existing carbon stocks, such as forests.


While the Clean Development Mechanism devised by the Kyoto Protocol has traditionally targeted emissions reduction through carbon removal and sequestration via afforestation and/or reforestation projects, since 2005 negotiations have been undergoing within the UNFCCC framework to create financial value for the carbon already stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries in the forms of result-based payments to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (‘REDD’) while also highlighting the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (‘plus’).

The first major breakthrough on this matter occurred in 2013, when the Warsaw Framework for REDD-plus was agreed at COP19, reaffirming the role of results-based finance in the land sector for reducing emissions, encouraging financing entities and countries to commit to it (through channeling payments into forest conservation actions and developing National REDD-plus programmes, respectively), and providing for the submission of information on safeguards, reporting, monitoring, and verifying. After further technical discussions in June of this year in Bonn, the only thing that is still missing in the Paris negotiations is then a global undertaking to clearly enshrine REDD-plus in the scope of the COP21 agreement and provide guidance on the implementation of the existing COP Decisions at the national level, thereby boosting the entire process.

It shall be noted that, even with the future of REDD-plus still somewhat unclear,critics have argued that a similar regime already “appears poised to create a similarly narrow, single-issue program”, without proper incentivization for meaningful habitat conservation objectives, with others noting that the inclusion of the 'plus' activities (e.g. enhancement of carbon stocks) could even theoretically increase incentives for conversion of primary and degraded forests into commercial tree plantations, thus potentially impacting biodiversity, and favor the emergence of phenomena such as land grabbing and land speculation, to the detriment of forest communities.

Nevertheless, REDD-inspired initiatives have been taken up by, inter alia, the UN REDD Programme, which to this date has approved a total of US$86.5 million to support the development and implementation of National REDD-plus Strategies in 23 partner countries, and the World Bank's Forest Carbon Facility Partnership(FCPF) and Forest Investment Program (FIP), so far operating on a voluntary basis but shedding light on the potential of a similar mechanism.


The 64 Partner Countries of the UN REDD Programme. Source: UN REDD Programme 201

The 64 Partner Countries of the UN REDD Programme. Source: UN REDD Programme 201

Exemplar, in such perspective, is the case of the Ankeniheny-Zahamena-Mantadia Biodiversity Conservation Corridor and Restoration Project in Madagascar, financed with US$1.5 million by the World Bank and including: (i) 400,000 hectares of avoided deforestation; (ii) reforestation of 3,000 hectares with native species to reconnect isolated forests and create a biodiversity corridor; and (iii) elements designed to meet the social and economic needs of local populations as a means of addressing the underlying drivers of deforestation.

More specifically, this experience suggests that the effective integration, into projects and national strategies, of issue linkages through linkage-based incentives can provide important opportunities for simultaneously targeting the related environmental concerns of climate change and biodiversity loss. In the future, similar examples could also be developed for other types of habitats, such as shore ocean ecosystems, where seagrass meadows and kelp forests have been shown to store carbon at a level that in some cases exceeds the capacity of terrestrial forests. This is why negotiators have COP21 have an unprecedented responsibility to finally operationalize an effective REDD-plus mechanism and provide a clear, large-scale, measurable alternative to unrestrained deforestation and habitat degradation as part of countries’ nationally determined mitigation contributions.

Dario Piselli is the Project Leader for Solutions Initiatives at SDSN Youth. He is an MSc student in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dario's main research interests include international environmental law, environmental diplomacy, biodiversity conservation, ocean, seas and marine resources governance, climate change, sustainable development and human rights law. All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinions of the author and not that of SDSN Youth