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Global Ideas

At climate talks, weighing success of forest preservation scheme

Preserving forests to protect our climate is the idea behind the milestone REDD program launched at UN climate talks eight years ago. At the Warsaw climate summit the question is just how successful the scheme has been.

Warsaw’s bitterly cold winter is evident the moment you arrive at the aiport where an icy wind is blowing. For many delegates at the UN climate conference taking place in the Polish city, the temperatures are a shock. Many of them are from Asia, Africa or Latin America and they aren’t used to the biting cold of the Polish capital. Many make a beeline for the aiport shops, hunting for warm scarves, gloves or caps.

But, both at the airport as well as in the city, there’s surprisingly little sign of the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19), as the global climate talks in Warsaw are called. Most Poles seem to be taking little notice of the mega event held in their city. Even the main television stations aren’t leading their news shows with the discussions on the fight against climate change.

At the cultural palace, in the heart of the city, a huge poster welcomes guests. Inside, an exhibition, financed by the Polish environment ministry, advocates renewable energies. But it doesn’t seem to be attracting the crowds. Businessman Witold Glen patiently explains how his mid-scale company’s new heating system works to the few guests who have made it to the exhibtion. “With our system, you can save up to 70 percent of energy costs. The investments pay off quite fast,” he says. The company Makroterm holds 37 patents. The model, which is based on solar cells, woods and a condensing boiler, has twice received awards of excellence.

Wood - a global and sustainable raw material?

Night shot of national stadium (Photo: DW)

The 2013 climate talks are held at Warsaw National Stadium

The wood for the company’s boiler is not from only the region. Wood has long become a globally traded raw material and its sustainable sourcing is also a topic at the climate conference where delegates discuss how climate change can be combatted in dozens of briefings and meetings. The conference has drawn scientists, lawmakers as well representatives from non-governmental organizations from all over the world. Germany is drumming up support for its International Climate Initiative (IKI) while the European Union is doing the same for its various climate protection measures.

Another topic that’s high up on the agenda at the climate conference is the REDD mechanism. It stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. It’s meant to preserve the world’s forests because they aren’t just important carbon sinks but also serve as habitats for many animal and plant species. A piece of primary forest teeming with biodiversity is considered significantly more valuable than the same surface area planted with a monoculture.

Fighting deforestation with REDD

Delegates and hurrying along corridors (Photo: DW)

Established programs like REDD under scrutiny at the climate talks

Programs such as REDD+ are meant to create financial incentives to preserve forests. But just how is the success of these programs measured? And how can you determine whether forests are really preserved on the scale that they are promised?

“There are knowledge gaps,” Serena Pontoglio, who works for the European Comission in the field of research and innovation, admits. There’s a lack of verifiable data. But that could change with the help of funds from the EU program Horizon2020. Around 35 percent of the funds are earmarked for studies on climate change.

Ole Mertz, an agricultural economist and geographer at the University of Copenhagen is already researching what impact REDD has on reducing harmful emissions. “Carbon measurement is very expensive if you want to do it accurately,” the Danish scientist says.

Together with 14 interdisciplinary partners, Mertz is researching how the deforestation that is prevented affects the emission of greenhouse gases as well as what positive side effects are created for the biological diversity and the living conditions of people in these places.

Mertz says that so-called mosaic landscapes that consist of several small areas that are used for different purposes, pose particular challenges. In such regions, such as national parks, collecting data is a painstaking process. And by the time the data is gathered and the appropriate measures are agreed, the situation could very well worsen again, Mertz points out.

A further problem lies in deforestation that doesn’t show up in any economic data. In Laos and Vietnam, for instance, rampant illegal cutting down of trees is leading to a massive loss of forest cover.

Data still expensive

The solution could lie in the use of modern technology. “Data costs are expensive especially if you need good quality pictures but you need them because when you increase the pixels you are able to see more,” Dirk Pflugmacher from the Humboldt University in Berlin says. “High resolution can help.”

Help could also come from the European Union which plans to send the satellite Sentinel-2 into space by the end of 2014. The data that will be gathered by the satellite “will be free and accessible for everybody,”a representative of the European Space Agency says.

And that’s not all. Sentinel-2 is also especially fast. It can orbit the whole earth in 10 days and take photos in high resolution. That will enable scientists such as Ole Mertz to approach policymakers at an early stage and propose measures to preseve forests. That in turn would ensure programs such as REDD have a much higher success rate.