Negotiators Zero in on Forest Deal

By Andrew Freedman

While all eyes remain on key divisions here in Copenhagen between developing nations and the industrialized world – any one of which could halt the climate talks – one clear sign of progress toward agreement has now emerged. The building consensus concerns a new program to reduce deforestation, which is a key contributor to global climate change.

Environmental groups are optimistic about a draft text that may become part of a broader climate agreement here at the end of the week. The December 15 draft, which negotiators discussed until very late last night, contains the architecture for a program known as REDD, which stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.”

The idea behind REDD is for industrialized countries and the private sector to provide financial incentives for communities in developing countries to preserve existing tracts of carbon-absorbing forests. The draft text is just that, a draft, and many details remain to be completed at the ministerial and head of state levels during the next three days. But many of the highly contentious issues have been worked out already, according to Gustavo Silva-Chavez, a climate and forests specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). 

It may not get as much attention as, say, new commitments from the United States to slash greenhouse gas emissions would (the top U.S. negotiator said today that’s “unlikely”), or long-term financing from industrialized countries to help developing countries cope with the potential effects of climate change, but reducing deforestation could have a significant impact on the climate system.

As my colleague Nicole Heller explained on Dec. 11, trees and forest soil absorb and store large amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when trees are cut down. It is estimated that deforestation alone accounts for an estimated 20% of annual carbon emissions.

Right now, economic pressures drive deforestation in many parts of the world, since for many communities it can simply be more profitable to cut down forests for agriculture, logging or other purposes than it is to preserve it.

Many developing countries, such as Costa Rica and Brazil, came to Copenhagen with the message, in effect, “help us help you.” They sought a way to incentivize forest conservation by putting an economic value on the ecosystem services that forests provide, which in turn would keep more carbon in the soils rather than in the air.

In the timescale of international environmental negotiations, REDD has been progressing at warp speed – moving from the concept level to the fast track at Copenhagen in only a few short years.