11/29/2010 04:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Cancún Matters

The 16th Conference of Parties on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - COP16 for short - kicked off in Cancún today. Compared to COP15 in Copenhagen a year ago, expectations for COP16 are low. The universal prediction is that like Copenhagen, Cancún won't produce a binding, global treaty, either. Some have gone as far as to call this a "legitimation crisis" for the UNFCCC process, but at the same time they acknowledge that Cancún is far from irrelevant. What happens at COP16 matters very much, whether it achieves a new treaty or not.

To be clear, we do need a comprehensive, binding agreement and all countries need to keep working for one in the near future. But meanwhile, COP16 may advance important decisions on implementing and financing REDD+ and other measures that will help developing countries conserve forests and improve land use. Taking those decisions would be a major step forward.

In recent weeks the Council of the European Union, 62 environmental ministers at the biodiversity conference in Nagoya, Japan, the foreign minister of Mexico and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon have all indicated that progress in certain key areas related to forests, land use and financing can and should be achieved in Cancún. In addition to REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), they include agriculture, adaptation and mitigation, MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification), financing and other related areas. They are all featured on the COP16 agenda.

Focusing on these issues highlights the important nexus between conserving forests, sustainable agriculture and land use practices, sustainable development and climate protection. Deforestation accounts for about 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of emissions from the world's entire transport sector. The interaction of forest loss and agriculture account for significantly more than that. Agriculture and agribusiness drive deforestation, clearing and degrading forests to feed markets for such commodities as cattle, soy, oil palm, etc.

Progress in Cancún on REDD+, financing, agriculture, land use and related areas would be significant for cutting global emissions as well as preserving biodiversity, securing a sustainable food supply and helping people in developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change that is already underway. At the same time, it would also advance programs and policies to help make private-sector agribusiness a key part of the climate solution as opposed to a key part of the problem.

Delegates in Cancun will be negotiating nuts and bolts of REDD+ implementation and finance mechanisms that would enable REDD+ and get us started on a path to cutting 17% of global emissions. Most estimates put the costs of cutting deforestation in half by 2020 in the range of $25 to $35 billion per year. To raise that kind of money, a diverse set of funding sources, including both market and non-market (i.e. national government and multilateral) funding, will be required. Indigenous peoples and local communities must be fully enfranchised and empowered any REDD+ system and share equitably in its benefits, partly for reasons of environmental and economic justice, and partly because increasingly, throughout the developing world local communities are the ones managing the forests.

That's why The New York Times reported last week on community forestry projects in Mexico that will be showcased at COP16, and why my organization, the Rainforest Alliance, pilots on-ground REDD+ community forestry projects that field-test the implementation mechanisms that will get a global REDD+ system started.

If all this seems more technical and less broadly hopeful than a new global treaty on climate change, remember two things: First, emissions from deforestation are about equivalent to that of the entire global transport sector. COP16 is within reach of important decisions on cutting them. Second, that nexus of forestry, agriculture and land use accounts for an enormous portion of global carbon emissions. Addressing them is prerequisite for any comprehensive treaty, and COP16 is focusing on them now.

I am on my way to Cancún to participate in COP16 side events. For updates on from the COP16 conference floor, see