Geographic Information Systems (GIS) officer Paul Hasagama has travelled for two full days to get from his native Papua New Guinea to Dehradun, a city on the foothills of the Himalayas, known as the forestry capital of India. “It was a long trip via Australia, China and Delhi, but it has all been worth it,” he says after participating in a major three-day regional knowledge exchange event for Asia and the Pacific organized by the UN-REDD Programme.
The event, which was held from 12-14 September at the Inderlok Hotel in Dehradun, was organized by the UN-REDD Programme, with the support of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), India Council for Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), the International Centre for Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and GIZ (German development agency).
The landmark Paris Agreement on climate change created a new context for international mitigation efforts while confirming the existing framework for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+). Within this framework, many countries are now making progress on developing and submitting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) their Forest Reference (Emission) Levels (FREL/FRLs), which are benchmarks for assessing REDD+ performance, often in the context of receiving results-based finance.
Submitting FREL/FRLs to the UNFCCC is an involved process that requires understanding national circumstances that drive emissions and removals and the adoption of reliable and transparent methodologies to measure, report and verify emissions and removals from forests. To help countries address the challenges they face in this technical process, leading experts from the three UN agencies comprising the UN-REDD Programme (FAO, UNDP, UN Environment) flew in from Bangkok, Rome and New York to give insightful presentations about the latest developments on FREL/FRLs.
“Forest Reference (Emission) Levels are crucial starting points to assess whether a country’s REDD+ strategy is succeeding at reducing emissions or increasing removals from forests, and whether it can claim payments for its performance,” said Marieke Sandker, Forestry Officer in the NFM/REDD+ cluster for FAO.
Fifty participants travelled from as far away as Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia for the occasion, alongside delegates from India’s neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal, to gain knowledge and exchange with their counterparts on FREL/FRLs.
“Countries learn best from each other, so it is very important we give them opportunities to present their achievements, share their challenges and discuss their plans for the future; this is what this regional exchange was all about,” said Emelyne Cheney, Regional Technical Advisor for Forests and Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific for UN Environment. Countries in Asia and the Pacific are at different stages of development regarding their FREL/FRLs.
To date, 34 countries have submitted 38 FREL/FRLs to the UNFCCC globally, representing 1.4 billion hectares of forest, 36% of global forest area, and 66% of global forest loss, according to FAO’s working paper From reference levels to results reporting: REDD+ under the UNFCCC. Among these countries, 11 are located in Asia and the Pacific, including India.
“We submitted our first Forest Reference Level to the UNFCCC this past January,” said Dr. Subhash Ashutosh, the Director-General of FSI. “The whole technical assessment process that ensued has been a great learning experience for us. We now feel confident about our ability to construct our FREL/FRL in a much more refined manner.”
“Facing the technical assessment is a bit like taking an exam,” said Jigme Tenzin, Deputy Chief Forestry Officer at the Department of Forests in Bhutan. “During the workshop, we saw the questions other countries got from the assessment team and how they answered them. We will now incorporate these learnings into our own FRL draft before submitting it.”
Building coherent REDD+ systems can be a challenge, but also an opportunity, noted Ms. Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, the National Deputy Programme Director of the UN-REDD Viet Nam Phase II Programme and the REDD+ focal point at the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. “The whole process strengthens our capacities and gives us a chance to better coordinate our ministries and agencies,” she said.
BEYOND TROPICAL FORESTS
The three-day event comprised a two-day workshop and a one-day field trip to the nearby Thano Forest Reserve, where FSI demonstrated how they lay out their sample plots to build India’s National Forest Carbon Inventory.
India has over 2,000 tree species, but Thano is dominated by sal trees (Shorea robusta), one of the main sources of hardwood timber in the country. “Tropical forests grow up to six times faster than ours, and they have little soil litter,” said Mongolian GIS specialist Bat Ulzii Chultem.
Mongolia is the first non-tropical country to join the UN-REDD Programme, and its boreal forests are part of the world’s largest land-based carbon sink, stretching across the Northern Hemisphere. Chultem is taking away important insights on the way his Indian counterparts work, but he also reflects on the specific challenges that his country faces to mitigate emissions from forests. “Colleagues from tropical countries can use each other’s research and practices to inform their REDD+ strategy, but we can only turn to data on Russian forests. To achieve the best results, we need more support to build and publish a body of research that is specific to our ecosystem.”
“The REDD+ debate is currently dominated by tropical forests and low-lying island countries,” said Bhaskar Singh Karky, the REDD+ Programme Coordinator for ICIMOD in Nepal. “However, REDD+ offers important opportunities to mountain countries, which are particularly vulnerable to global warming — temperatures are rising faster at higher altitudes and this poses a threat to the many people who depend on freshwater from mountains and glaciers.”
Danae Stavroula M. Maniatis, Senior Policy and Technical Advisor for the UN-REDD Programme at UNDP said one of the event’s main outcomes was relating FREL/FRLs to the broader context of REDD+ implementation. “I think the event helped countries clarify the bridge between Forest Reference Levels and the other elements of REDD+ strategies, and how all of that gets them to the step of results-based payments.”
Moving forward, it is expected that this knowledge exchange will establish a collaborative working relationship between the participating countries. “Knowledge-sharing events are an opportunity for countries to discuss solutions to common challenges they are facing, and this speeds up the whole REDD+ process,” said Dr. SC Gairola, Director General at the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE). “Ultimately, it is about all of us being able to implement and monitor REDD+ in our countries.”
“People working on FREL/FRLs often do so in isolation –each in his or her own country— so this kind of event helps them discuss technical issues with counterparts from other countries,” said Karky. “At ICIMOD, we thought it would be good for the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region to learn from others such as Cambodia and Vietnam, so last year we teamed up with the UN-REDD Programme to organize a workshop on Forest Reference Levels in Nepal. Two countries went on to submit their FREL/FRLs to the UNFCCC after that event, and we hope to see others following suit as a result of this year’s knowledge exchange in Dehradun.”
For the time being, GIS officer Paul Hasagama is focused on putting to use the learnings from this year’s event. He has another long journey ahead —from India to Papua New Guinea via China and Australia— but he does not mind. “I now have a much better understanding of the requirements to access results-based payments, so I feel empowered to help my country take the next steps.”
Regional Communications Specialist
UN-REDD Programme, Asia-Pacific Region
Freelance Journalist for the UN-REDD Programme