COP26: ‘There must be help for developing countries to reduce forest degradation’

The head of Uganda’s forest authority says urgent action must be taken as COP26 seeks to finalise a declaration on preserving forests

Friday 29 October 2021 15:21
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<p>Echuya Central Forest Reserve in South Western Uganda</p>

Echuya Central Forest Reserve in South Western Uganda

As world leaders come together for the climate conference they must help developing nations from losing their forests due to unsustainable human activities, says the Executive Director of Uganda’s National Forestry Authority Tom Obong Okello.

Speaking in Glasgow ahead of the COP26 Summit, Mr Okello warned that forests are being destroyed to become arable land to feed Uganda’s rapidly growing population, with potentially grave consequences for not only his country but the world.

Forests like those in Uganda act as essential carbon sinks that via photosynthesis absorb carbon dioxide, thereby reducing the impact of emissions in developed nations. Preserving them is vital to efforts to reduce the impact of global warming by limiting the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“The forest cover in Uganda has reduced from 24 percent in 1990 to just over 12 percent currently,” Mr Okello told The Independent. “Our country has one of the world’s highest population growth rates, at 3.3 percent, and it’s causing deforestation as forests are being cleared to create space to grow more food.”

This problem is particularly acute as it is part of a worldwide trend that, experts say, must be reversed if climate change targets are to be hit.

Since 1990, some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost worldwide, and during the last five years the rate of deforestation is estimated to have hit 10 million hectares per year.

Mr Okello’s warning comes at an important time as pressure grows internationally for the climate conference to prioritise the issue of forests. The European Union, Indonesia and Democratic Republic of Congo are among those who have already agreed to support a Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which is hoped to be unveiled at COP26 on Tuesday.

The final text of the declaration is still being developed, however, and is expected not to be agreed on until the day it is announced. Countries have until Monday to confirm their support but at present Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, is yet to back it.

Mr Okello also cited pressure on forests coming from the unsustainable issue of Ugandans’ dependence on biomass energy, with 88 percent of the population still relying on wood fuel for household and industrial energy needs.

“Even in urban areas many people still depend on charcoal,” he said. “We need to look at alternatives, such as LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) which is low in carbon emission.

“But this is not affordable to rural communities currently. We need to embrace more efficient methods of cooking to get maximum energy from the resources, and then offer incentives for people to adopt that new technology.

“We can’t have environmental change without changing mindsets first, and we urgently need both. We have been surviving this way, using nature this way, for a long time. But it’s now time to change. We cannot live without nature, but nature can live without us. So we must ask, is there a way for us to strike a better balance?”

The Ugandan government’s vision is to return to 1990’s level of forest cover by 2040, and Mr Okello says that thanks to national initiatives, such as one which sets out to plant 40 million trees annually, there is hope.

“We are seeing a positive trend now, the forest cover is increasing and we could be clocking as much as 13% cover now. But this is mainly in government protected areas, what’s happening outside of those is worrying.

“We are involving communities around the country, especially in areas where we don’t have trees to grow trees. Now people demand trees to grow, and they want to look after them.”

In 2013, the Government of Uganda launched its own REDD+ Programme, to demonstrate its commitment to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

In 2017, the country submitted its first Forest Reference Emission Level of historical average emissions from deforestation for the period 2000 to 2015. Following this submission, the Government decided to assess the country’s performance in reducing emissions for the period 2015-2017 to further improve estimates of forest change and associated emission factors by forest type.

This resulted it in becoming the first African country to submit REDD+ results to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in June last year, paving the way to potential results-based payments.

This opens the opportunity for forest protection. Gabon recently became the first African country to be paid for protecting its natural resources after it was found to have limited annual deforestation to less than 0.1 percent over the last 30 years.

Gabon received the first $17 million of a pledged $150 million from Norway for results-based emission reduction payments as part of the Central African Forest Initiative.

Mr Okello said this was an important area for further examination by Uganda. “We are very much interested in learning how they did it,” he said, “and will be hoping to discuss this with officials from Gabon at the sidelines of COP26.

“I want to see how the world is going to help developing countries to reduce forest degradation, and how together we can bring on board incentives for forest conservation.”

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