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It’s critical to blend climate tracking with development

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During the opening ceremony of the COP 20 climate conference, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, remarked that the bustling halls and sun-drenched grass patches of the conference site were set up in just six weeks.

The seemingly last-minute and rather chaotic operation reflects the spirit of the event. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of panel discussions, presentations and political negotiations that, at the end of the first week, is slowly taking shape as a more-consistent set of ideas.

What strikes me as the most-pressing issue is the need to bring science back to earth and into action through more-flexible and site-specific implementation strategies.

It’s apt that we are in Peru, where forests are important as a natural resource and for the economy. A study presented on 2 December, which assessed the carbon-storage capacity of the Amazonian region, shows that territories that are home to indigenous people store about a third of the region’s carbon stocks. A common concern for the people living in the forest is the threat of being displaced as a consequence of rules designed to conserve the natural environment. The study highlights the issue around human rights and the valorisation of indigenous cultures when dealing with conservation.

I wanted to know more about the available methods for managing carbon stocks while respecting local communities. So I attended a side event that offered an insight into the challenges of measuring the carbon stored in forests to help countries protect them.

The UN’s REDD+ programme prescribes a system of measurement, reporting and verification (known as MRV) to make sure that forests are well managed, healthy and fit to keep as much carbon as possible out of the atmosphere. But the challenge is huge because many countries are too poor to develop an effective monitoring capacity, which is crucial to plan effective interventions tailored to the specific natural and social context.

The session I attended portrayed the Global Forest Observations Initiative as an important way of developing MRV activities. It is a partnership project that was launched in 2011 with the aim of helping countries develop capacity to map their forests by providing them with free satellite data and training sessions where operators can work hands-on with computer models and new mapping technologies, and take part in field studies.

This would have a double benefit: enabling the trainees to develop methods that are suited to local environments and increasing the quantity of forests actively monitored over time.

Developing an effective, long-term MRV system in developing countries is possible, said panellist Jackson Kimani, regional director of the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Climate Initiative. But they should do more than just measure carbon emissions. He explained how Kenya is building a comprehensive system for estimating land carbon emissions using a wide variety of information, including data on soil, crops, land cover and usage, and daily weather reports.

However, he pointed out that climate change competes with a range of other pressing development issues in developing countries. These issues can’t be ignored when planning monitoring systems, he said, otherwise any new system will soon be overshadowed by them.

Instead, said Kimani, all mitigation systems need to be built in a way that supports broader development goals. In the case of monitoring activities, the data collected to keep carbon emissions in check can be used for other purposes too.

For example, he said, soil data should also inform farmers about which species of crops are more suited for a specific area, while daily weather data can be helpful in developing cheaper crop insurance systems (listen to an extract of our conversation on this topic, right).

Kimani suggested that the key to meeting climate goals in developing countries is to combine efforts on that front with work on development goals. The example of Kenya shows that the two can work together, bringing a better return on investment — and this can foster the political will needed to leverage long-lasting change.

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