23 September 2014

Unify forces across the landscape to fight climate change

Can the current climate change, food scarcity, forest conservation crisis be turned into a global revolution? Daniel Nepstad, Executive Director of the Brazilian Earth Innovation Institute, is convinced it can, and he takes his optimism from encouraging developments in Brazil.

Progress has been made in slowing down deforestation in the Amazon, Nepstad says, and the different stakeholders in land use – private sector as well as government – are talking shop. A multi-sectoral group is working on “a definition of success with quantitative milestones for lowering deforestation, and the first round of incentives that would drive the region towards that success,” he explains in a recent interview for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)’s Forests News.

Nepstad is very vocal about overcoming fragmentation while tackling problems of competing land use under the shadow of climate change. And his ideas clearly reflect landscape thinking. According to CIFOR scientist Terry Sunderland a “landscape approach […]relates to conservation, agriculture and other land uses [and] seeks to address the increasingly complex and widespread environmental, social and political challenges that transcend traditional management boundaries.”

As attention worldwide is focussed on the UN Climate Summit next week, Nepstad will be in New York, at a CIFOR event. He is one of six panelists at the Colloquium on Forests and Climate: New Thinking for Transformational Change on 24 September, co-hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia. And he will also contribute his optimistic ideas to the Global Landscapes Forum in December when he will be one of the speakers.

An edited transcript of his interview follows.



Photo: IPAM

Q: What is the ‘big idea’ you’ll be bringing to New York?

A: A global crisis is under way that could become a global revolution.

Climate change and rapid growth in human consumption of food, fuel and fiber are driving agricultural expansion — especially in the tropics. This trend could accelerate tropical deforestation, releasing lots of carbon to the atmosphere, making climate change worse. Or, we can get out ahead of this problem and grow more food on lands that are already cleared.

To change the crisis into a revolution we need to overcome the intense fragmentation that we’ve seen — we’ve got volunteer private sector approaches versus policy approaches versus international approaches like REDD+ — and we need to find ways to bring them together at a scale that actually makes a difference.

It is starting to happen — we are seeing progress toward a bottom-up approach to agricultural sustainability across large territories that could eventually link up to international standards for agricultural commodities and to climate finance. First and foremost, this approach needs to work for the Amazon, for Borneo, for the people on the ground who are engaged in these production systems.

Q: How can this fragmentation be overcome?

A: The first step is to establish a definition of success that everyone can live with across entire territories — counties, states and eventually nations. The second step is to be able to monitor that success regionally, and then the third piece is incentives that will drive rural development toward more food, more forests, better livelihoods and fewer emissions.  The incentives don’t have to be financial — some of the most powerful incentives in the near term can be simply streamlining bureaucracy and making it more efficient to do business. You don’t need a ton of REDD+ money to get the incentives right — you just remove some of the red tape.

“We really need to simplify and unify forces if we’re going to navigate this climate change, food scarcity, forest conservation crisis that’s emerging,” said Dan Nepstad, Executive Director of the Earth Innovation Institute.

In Brazil this is already starting to happen. There’s a multi-sector agreement on deforestation that basically tries to pull together what are currently separate strands of policy. It could soon fill an important gap — the soy moratorium is ending in December, the cattle agreement is having a rough time since it engages only 30 percent of the market, the new Forest Code is acting like a vortex that is sucking all the oxygen out of the discussions of deforestation and sustainability. And yet there’s a group of sectors — soy, beef, finance, state governments — that have been meeting for the last 18 months to come up with a definition of success with quantitative milestones for lowering deforestation, and the first round of incentives that would drive the region towards that success.

We see progress globally as well. Just last month in Acre, Brazil, the Governors’ Climate & Forests Task Force signed a declaration to lower deforestation by 80 percent by 2020. That includes a quarter of the world’s tropical forest, most of Indonesia, most of the Amazon.

So it’s a real time of fragmentation, but a time where there could be a coalescence between what have been farm-level focused supply-chain initiatives where certification is the mechanism — and policy initiatives which carry with them law enforcement and fiscal incentives that can really take this transformation to scale.

Q: What does it mean in practice to scale up deforestation reduction measures?

A: The paradigm shift is in saying, Your farm is in a region that’s hitting its deforestation reduction milestones, therefore you’re good to go to market.

Rather than saying, Your property is certified as sustainable, which is very important, but is having a hard time going to scale, partly because it’s so expensive to audit individual properties.

In Brazil, we are getting close to a multi-sector agreement with a supporting monitoring program so that that any investor, any buyer of soy or beef can ask, “Well, my supply chains want to work with these four counties, so how are they doing towards this sustainability milestone — oh, they’ve already hit their milestone, they’re good until 2018, and so that’s a low-risk place for me to do my sourcing from.”

The Amazon forest hosts some of the richest biodiversity in the world and stores vast amounts of carbon — but it’s also home to more than 30 million people.

Q: You have written a lot about Brazil’s impressive reduction in deforestation over the last decade. Could it happen in other countries or was it a fortunate convergence of events?

A: It probably gets down to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s desire to be an international leader and position Brazil as an international power. He saw Amazon deforestation as a stone in his shoe, and in 2004 gave Marina Silva the power to address it. When he took Amazon deforestation into his own Cabinet, that facilitated a whole new level of enforcement. But there are many strands.

Half of the world’s reduction in deforestation achieved in the past eight years was in the state of Mato Grosso. A figure like Blairo Maggi sort of symbolizes the broader global change.

Governors proclaiming 80 percent reduction in deforestation by 2020 alone is meaningless. But if it becomes the context for driving dialogue and change, for getting policies aligned, then it can hit the ground

Maggi is a very successful soy magnate who became governor of Mato Grosso. I met him in 2004 and we started talking a lot since I had a big experiment on one of his farms. But I watched his whole discourse go from, “We have to feed the world, we have to tear down forests” and thumbing his nose at Greenpeace — to realizing that it was good business to embrace sustainability at a broader scale.

He went from winning the Golden Chainsaw of the Year award in 2005, to putting out the most ambitious deforestation reduction target going at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 — 89 percent by 2020. And Mato Grosso actually hit that target early, in 2012.

It was this amazing turnaround. And I think there you see the market rejecting deforestation from supply chains, helped by this very convenient fact that beef was intensifying on a shrinking area of pasture, opening space for soy and reducing the need to clear forests.