Hope and funding for saving forests around the world

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- In the months leading up to the U.N.-sponsored climate talks, there was one thing observers said with confidence: Any final outcome would establish global guidelines for paying poor countries to preserve their tropical forests.

That almost happened. The fact that it didn't may pose a slight glitch, but is unlikely to halt the proliferation of such projects around the world.

The burning and clearing of forests, primarily in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, accounts for roughly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year.

A coalition of conservationists, business interests and officials from developing countries back the idea of creating financial incentives for leaving standing trees that are in danger of being cleared for ranching or farming. According to the arrangement, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD, industries that create carbon emissions essentially pay impoverished nations to maintain their rainforests by buying pollution allowances from them.

Mark Tercek, chief executive of the Nature Conservancy, sees the mechanism as a win-win situation.

"It's a good deal for the developed world," Tercek said. "There are no losers."

Over two weeks in Copenhagen, negotiators worked out most of the details about how such a global system would work, and what type of projects would qualify for offsets.

But two key provisions -- what sort of emissions cuts countries would aim to achieve by avoiding deforestation and how much money rich nations would give to help finance it -- were tied to broader political questions that did not get resolved. So while references to REDD made it into the Copenhagen accord, the actual U.N. document that would insert it into a future treaty was tabled until next year.

The U.N.'s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, said Friday that the forestry provisions of a future climate pact, along with helping developing countries adapt to climate change and acquire clean technology, are "oven ready" and could be completed without a problem in 2010, assuming there's a final agreement then.

"'Nothing will be achieved until everything is agreed,'" said Fred Boltz, senior vice president for global strategies at Conservation International, referring to a line by U.N. official Michael Zammit Cutajar. Boltz added that despite the delay, "We've come a long way in two years and we have an opportunity on a scale that was previously inconceivable to act immediately to avert emissions from deforestation."

The talks did produce concrete short-term financial commitments to fund the effort, with $3.5 billion pledged by Norway, Japan, the United States, Britain, France and Australia.

This could be the start of a broader effort to put a dollar value on the carbon benefits received from natural ecosystems, whether from sea grass or mangroves.

"The fact is the global economy is at a point where it's beginning to internalize the services of a rainforest, and bring it into the transactions of a global economy," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme.

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