CANCUN, MEXICO -- Big holes remain in some of the most basic but contentious issues in a UN-backed scheme to prevent deforestation, fueling speculation of a weaker than expected forestry agreement at the Cancun climate talks.
Sticking points include the mechanisms to monitor critical safeguards that protect biodiversity and the rights of indigenous people and the question of whether to finance the plan with public money or offsets.
"They're all pretty fundamental issues," said Davyth Stewart, a lawyer with the UK-based campaign group Global Witness. "Each of these, depending on how you decide it, could lead to a really bad deal."
Stewart is not alone in that view.
"We're really only a few words away from a good agreement — and similarly, a few words away from a bad agreement," said Roman Czebiniak, a political adviser for Greenpeace International, who has been in the forestry negotiations.
Under the plan, known as REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, rich countries would pay poorer ones billions of dollars per year to preserve their endangered forests. Trees absorb carbon when they grow. Razing them is responsible for one-fifth of global warming emissions, according to UN estimates.
The Nov. 29-Dec. 10 Cancun talks were predicted to deliver major progress on the plan, which has broad support from rich and poor nations. Now there are doubts.
Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), however, maintained optimism. "The work on REDD" is "well advanced" and has "reached compromise," she told reporters in Cancun on Friday.
"[It] basically needs to wait for the other areas of the package to reach the same level of compromise, so that there can be an overall balance across the entire package," Figueres said.
Countries At Loggerheads
But the drama unfolding behind the scenes among nations tells a different story, observers say.
"They're using process to delay decisions made on substance," Czebiniak told SolveClimate News.
As of Friday evening, at least three bracket-filled negotiating texts were still on the table, just days before the high-level segment of talks is set to begin. Nations are at loggerheads over fundamental issues, most notably Bolivia and the U.S. and Australia.
Bolivia wants stronger safeguards around indigenous peoples' rights and to rule out the option of using REDD as an offset scheme, to which it is ideologically opposed.
Bolivia claims, along with other critics, that offsets do nothing to stop the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. Instead, such projects allow companies to meet carbon-cutting mandates through saving forests in far-off places, while continuing business-as-usual at home, they argue.
Australia and U.S., who want to include forest conservation projects into the global carbon trade, are adamant about including a reference to "carbon markets" in Cancun text.
"That's probably the most contentious issue [in the REDD talks]," Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway, a campaign group, said.
Saudi Arabia is also causing parties concern.
The oil kingdom, which has no forests and no financing obligations under REDD, is being accused of blocking progress on forestry to get concessions from countries in other areas of the talks.
In particular, it seeks compensation for the loss in oil revenues it will face from global carbon regulation. The nation also wants negotiators to include carbon capture and storage technologies, or CCS, in the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a carbon offset program created by the Kyoto Protocol.
"We now see some parties, which have a lot of oil, which are now trying to block REDD so that they can get the carbon capture and storage they want,” Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, chair of the African Group of nations, told SolveClimate News in an interview.
Stewart said REDD is being used as "a pawn in a chess game."
Brazil, which houses about 30 percent of the Earth's remaining rainforests, suggested it would not concede to Saudi Arabia on the CCS issue.
So far, CCS is "an unproven technology," Ambassador Luiz Figueiredo, Brazil's chief climate change negotiator, told reporters on Friday. "Its introduction in the CDM before it becomes commercially viable seems to be a little strange," he said, adding that it would be wiser to "wait a little bit more."
One issue that appears settled for now is the cash to get REDD going.
So far, $4.5 billion has been pledged in fast-start forestry financing from several wealthy nations, including Norway, Japan, the U.S., Australia, the UK and France.
"That's enough money to keep things going until 2012," Stewart said. "So the heat is off that question for the most part for REDD."