UN conferees work to bolster forests

Donations would fund plan to curb cutting in tropics

Protesters marched near the site of UN climate change negotiations yesterday in Cancun. Protesters marched near the site of UN climate change negotiations yesterday in Cancun. (Jose Dominguez/AFP/Getty Images)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post / December 8, 2010

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CANCUN, Mexico — For years, policy makers and scientists alike have spoken of the need to save tropical forests as a way of curbing climate change. By week’s end, UN negotiators may finally set the rules of the road for doing it.

If all goes according to plan, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will establish a global framework allowing developing nations to receive compensation for curbing deforestation, which accounts for roughly 15 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Brazil, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea are among the nations where forests are being cut to make way for expanded cattle grazing areas and the production of crops such as soybeans and palm oil.

Now the formal text on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+, as it is known, is almost ready. It will help define how to measure deforestation and what social and environmental safeguards need to be in place.

Environmentalists, who have lobbied hard for the measure as a way to save some of the world’s most biologically rich areas and to provide developing countries with a stake in conservation, say an agreement here will give both the public and private sector a financial incentive to protect forests under pressure in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

“We know that deforestation is a global problem, and the only way to address that is with an international mechanism,’’ said Rebecca Chacko, climate policy director for Conservation International. “Now we finally have a moment where, if we’re successful this week, we can move forward and begin to invest for real.’’

There are already pilot projects scattered around the globe, funded by corporate interests hoping to bolster their public image or prepare for a carbon-constrained world, or by governments and public institutions focused on curbing deforestation. Norway has pledged more than $1 billion between now and 2012 as part of its long-term pacts with Brazil, Indonesia, and Guyana, while the United States has promised $1 billion as part of any broad international climate deal.

And by the end of this month, a Hong Kong-based company may become the first to preserve a stretch of tropical forest by selling credits to major corporations, who could use them to compensate for their own greenhouse gas emissions if they face government regulation in the future.

Still, the sort of forest carbon market that would grow out of any climate agreement would be modest at first and funded largely through the roughly $4.5 billion in pledged donations to Brazil and Indonesia and other countries that show the most promise of delivering on verifiable cuts in deforestation.

A year ago many specialists had envisioned that most of the money would come from companies bound by the European Union’s emissions trading system as well as those in the United States, because Congress was considering adopting legislation that would have allowed American greenhouse gas emitters to buy offsets abroad. That legislation collapsed and, with it, the prospect of billions of dollars in private financing.

“There will not be a waterfall of money that will come from a final deal’’ in Cancun, said Andrew Deutz, the Nature Conservancy’s director of international relations.

But while a dozen countries already have promised to help pay to preserve forests in the short term, most specialists say it will fall short of what is needed. Several analyses estimate the world would need to devote $25 billion a year to cut deforestation in half by 2020.