The delicate details of forest protection verification

Dec 08 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Environment
Hugh Chalmers, London
Although negotiations at the 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17) under the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) are still underway, indicators of progress have already emerged. In particular, a draft decision circulated by a technical working group contains a number of interesting provisions for the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of forest-protection activities. As the Conference of Parties nears its end, what does this draft tell us about the development of forest protection verification?

The triad of monitoring, reporting and verification, first introduced to the UNFCCC in 2007, serves as a standard against which all climate change mitigation actions must be measured. According to the 2007 Bali Action Plan, mitigation actions by both developed and developing nations must be 'measurable, reportable and verifiable'. When these requirements are linked into a chain, with monitored actions being reported and subsequently verified, maintaining these standards ensures that all mitigation activities are operating as declared. However, when MRV is seen as a loop, a second benefit of these standards becomes apparent. If the outputs of this chain are evaluated, then fed back in to the preceding steps of monitoring and reporting, the entire process can be gradually refined.

This feedback mechanism is particularly important in the case of forest protection activities undertaken by developing states. While maintaining an infrastructure that meets the requirements of the Bali Action Plan may be achievable for developed states, this is typically not the case for developing states. These states, who control the most critical areas of forest and are therefore the main focus of forest protection activities, are not so well-equipped.

Reading into REDD+ verification
The UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) endeavours to create financial incentives for developing nations to better protect, manage and utilise their forest resources. In many states, these resources are of critical importance to the domestic economy, and subsequently the development of the nation as a whole. Convincing nations to deny themselves the financial benefits of deforestation for the sake of climate change mitigation therefore requires a reliable system of financial support. However, financial support will always depend upon the value placed upon these activities, and upon the assurances given that these activities are indeed taking place.
This is where the requirement for measurable, reportable and verifiable action steps in. REDD+ actions must be undertaken in a manner which provides an accurate financial measurement of protection activities which can be clearly reported and easily verified. But how does one place a financial value on the absence of certain processes? You must be able to define the costs that would be incurred in the presence of these processes. If an estimate of the carbon stocks contained within forests is combined with a projection of deforestation and degradation, a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario of carbon emitted through deforestation and degradation can be formulated. From this reference level, the emission reductions created by REDD+ activities can be inferred. How these ‘business-as-usual’ reference levels are created therefore forms the core of REDD+ MRV.
The draft decision
The draft decision on methodological guidance for REDD+ activities, produced by the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), goes some way towards solidifying how these scenarios should be developed. Although only circulated at the end of the first week of COP 17, the document represents a developing consensus on this issue. Unlike the main negotiating texts, which typically contain various disagreements within numerous brackets, the majority of this draft decision is contained within only one or two brackets.
Laid out within the text is a detailed methodology for reporting how one reference level is adopted over another. The rationale behind the development of a particular reference level must be reported, including a 'description of data sets, approaches, methods, models,' and historical data. To provide a complete, consistent and accurate understanding of the rationale, the guidelines even go as far as requiring the definition of “forest” adopted, and an explanation of why this definition was used.
Clearly the guidelines for measuring and reporting on REDD+ activities have been carefully thought out. Indeed, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) believes this document produces 'fairly comprehensive' reporting procedures. Importantly, the guidelines also allow for a flexible approach to the evolution of these reference levels. Developing states may take a step-wise approach, adopting subnational reference levels which can then be developed into national reference levels. New knowledge, trends and methodologies can be taken into account to update these reference levels over time, providing that the reasoning behind such adjustments is also reported.
This level of flexibility may prove to be just as important as the measuring and reporting guidelines themselves. Developing states who are eager to undertake REDD+ activities may be discouraged if the UNFCCC sets MRV standards that become unattainable due to a lack of infrastructure or expertise. With a flexible approach to the adoption of reference levels, and a mechanism for their gradual development, the requisite infrastructure and expertise can be developed over time.
Troublesome technicalities
Although these provisions could open the door to improved procedures, developing states will still have to walk through it. As it stands, the draft decision does not elaborate on how all these reports will be assessed. Although the document refers to a 'technical assessment of the data, methodologies and procedures used', it is not clear who will do this, how often this will happen, and what action may result. If the adherence to measuring and reporting guidelines cannot be properly verified, it is unclear whether the outcomes of the MRV process can be fed-back to correct any failings.
A tentative approach to finalising the mechanisms for verifying compliance to these guidelines is in some respects justifiable. Providing confidence to financial supporters whilst permitting the flexible adoption of standards involves an inherent trade-off. If a flexible approach to adopting guidelines is emphasised over the rigid adoption of singular guidelines, developed states may not be confident that their financial support will be properly used. As Louis Verchot of CIFOR explains; 'without knowing who will be accountable and how they are going to be held accountable, there may be reticence to put money on the table for REDD+'.
Verification can, and indeed should, contain mechanisms for the evolution of procedure. The draft decision circulated by the SBSTA contains just that. However, when negotiating REDD+ MRV, as with most aspects of climate change negotiation, the devil is truly in the detail. If the draft decision is adopted, delegates will eventually have to decide upon the exact nature of this 'technical assessment'. When they do so, both developed and developing states must remember that verification can serve more than one purpose.

Last changed: Dec 08 2011 at 11:57 PM