Report from Barcelona UN Climate Talks

The following is cross-posted on NWF’s Forest Justice blog.

The Mediterannean Sea is no more than a stone’s throw from the train whisking me north to Barcelona from the little port town of Sitges. I am a simple commuter this morning, joining thousands of Catalonians, some sleeping and some bantering in the heavy lisp of the Catalan dialect.

The train is the second stage of a commute that started with a bike ride and will finish with bus ride to the vast conference center holding the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in a recently redeveloped industrial zone of Barcelona. Fabric billboards suspended from lampposts herald the talks as “securing a global deal on climate change”. But most of Spain seems ambivalent. Unemployment hovers near 20%, the highest within the European Union, and the country’s national daily El Pais is preoccupied with estimates that Spain may actually see negative growth in 2010.

Against this backdrop thousands of delegates and observers have converged to set the stage for a Copenhagen climate deal. The talks are struggling but there a still several days to go. As seems typical of these meetings, the most affluent and influential countries, the ones who hold all the cards in terms of needed greenhouse gas reductions and future climate financing are being non-committal. Maybe it is just a diplomatic game, but the developing countries are furious.

Alongside the big issues of future targets and timetables for emissions reduction, one of the key fault lines in the negotiations for REDDs – the acronym for Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Degradation. (Check out NWF’s REDD fact sheet [PDF].)

Emissions from poor land use, especially from forest loss and conversion have risen to the top of the agenda in the post 2012 commitment period. At issue is how the tremendous rates of deforestation occurring in many tropical regions, some 13-15 million hectares per year, can be slowed if not stopped altogether. The stickiest issues involve what forms of payment to developing countries will provide enough incentive to leave forests standing, and in turn, what assurances the international community can extract to confirm their money wasn’t simply wasted on graft and corruption and those forests are in fact still standing.

REDDs is a hot topic here. At least a dozen formal “side meetings” touch on the subject covering the nuances of financing schemes, deforestation monitoring and verification systems, determination of deforestation baselines and trends, and the development of “multi-stakeholder and transparent” forest governance systems. Acronyms fly like butterflies on the wind: RIL (reduced impact logging) MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification) or IFM (independent forest monitoring). The negotiation of REDDs has generated it own vernacular. Yet, a strong underlying concern is how valuing forests purely for their carbon may trump other social and environmental aspects, especially in forest regions with strong cultural histories of indigenous forest peoples.

Later tonight, after many REDD meetings, I’ll do my bus, walk, train, and bike commute in reverse. My Catalonian hosts have noticed the string of dry days and unusually warm weather. They’re worried about global warming, but just as worried about local water quality. I’m told that beach erosion is high on the town’s list of concerns. The signs of global warming are everywhere, yet the signs in Barcelona are still mixed despite the euphoria of the billboards.