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January 4, 2016 | The Paris Agreement, and What’s In It For Conservationists

In the aftermath of COP21, the conversation is dominated by talk of INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), emissions reductions, and energy transitions, and while these are some of the most important steps to achieving the goals laid out by the Paris Agreement, they definitely don’t tell the full story. While there are other international bodies assigned specifically to conservation, it is an extremely important topic for COP conferences as well because our planet’s ecosystems are a huge factor in the global carbon budget and climate change.

The biggest victory for conservationists in the Paris Agreement is the overall goal of a carbon-neutral world by the end of the 21st century. This simply means that for every ton of carbon we emit into the atmosphere, there is the capacity for that one ton to be absorbed by natural processes, which includes photosynthesis in forests and carbon uptake in the oceans. While it is a lofty goal, and there aren’t many specifics on exactly how to achieve that by 2100, it does place conservation front and center in that we need to make sure there are enough healthy ecosystems on the planet to balance the global carbon budget.

There are also several specific mentions of conservation in the official document:

“The importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity” (p. 21)

“Parties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases […] including forests” (p. 23)

“The role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks” (p. 23-24)

“Building the resilience of socioeconomic and ecological systems, including through economic diversification and sustainable management of natural resources” (p. 25)

In addition, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degredation (REDD+) was a major theme at COP21. Although much more emphasis is given to forests, which are extremely important in managing our carbon budget but aren’t nearly as extensive, the Paris Agreement does mention oceans as a priority for conservation. The Paris Agreement also distinguishes between different types of land use; for instance, a natural wetland is different from a palm oil plantation in terms of carbon contributions, and now there is more of an emphasis on conserving wild, undisturbed nature.

While these mentions of conservation are well integrated into the Paris Agreement, and certainly form a central theme of the document, there is still much improvement to be made. Like most elements of the accord, the wording is still pretty vague and while most of the important bases are covered, the document is seriously lacking in specifics on how to achieve these goals. In the case of conservation, parties are encouraged to undertake all of these measures to conserve natural ecosystems, without much guidance on how to do it or consequences for not doing it.

The good news is that the inclusion of conservation in these meetings made leaps and bounds in Paris, and although we still have a long road ahead, conservation is slowly but surely working its way into the COP spotlight.

 

Emma Hutchinson is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Emma is a junior at Stanford University, where she is studying environmental science and economics.