At the United Nations this week, representatives of 85 governments, including 14 heads of state, assembled in a room to discuss how to change a world in which forests are worth more dead than alive.
Deforestation accounts for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than Europe emits, and more than all the world's cars, trucks, boats and planes emit. Because trees absorb carbon, deforestation causes a large amount of the greenhouse gas to be released to the atmosphere and also prevents trees from continuing to absorb it.
A leading solution that the world leaders were discussing is REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a UN program that would give people in developing countries a financial incentive to preserve their forests and, in the process, immediately begin reducing the world's carbon emissions.
While environmental advocates still have serious concerns about high carbon emitters abusing the system and simply buying forest credits to avoid making their own emissions cuts, the idea behind REDD is popular and could be adopted in December at the international climate change talks in Copenhagen. However, many in the room noted that while plenty of countries verbally expressed support in expanding REDD beyond the pilot stages, few had made the true commitment of devoting funding.
"Action on REDD is a critical part of the climate change solution," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated in his opening remarks at the meeting. "Preserving forests also provides other valuable benefits – biodiversity and soil conservation and flood control."
Noting that such services are valued in the trillions of dollars and that sustainable forest management can create jobs, Ban said, "Whichever way you look at it, protecting the world's forests is a critical investment."
Tropical forests store 25% of terrestrial carbon and absorb 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN REDD Program, $20 billion per year could prevent 90% of forests from being deforested and that forests provide $4.5 trillion to $5 trillion in ecosystem services, such as maintaining water quality and preventing erosion. If humankind instead continues to deforest at the same pace, the last of the planet's forests will be chopped down by 2100, it warns.
As a climate change mitigation solution, REDD has the appeal of providing relatively immediate benefits, especially compared to other solutions such as developing renewable energy or sequestering carbon underground, which are years away from making any sizable dent in growing greenhouse gas emissions.
Under REDD, the amount of carbon stored in forests would be measured using satellite imagery and direct testing; the measurements would be monitored, verified and reported. Developed countries and entities within them (such as companies) who expect to exceed their emissions targets would then be able to buy reductions in emissions by paying to preserve the registered forests.
Kevin Conrad, Papua New Guinea's Special Envoy and Ambassador for Environment & Climate Change, says there are three main concerns regarding REDD: whether or not financing will be sufficient especially given the global economy, whether or not the amount of carbon stored can be accurately monitored, reported and verified, and whether an equitable and transparent financing system can be established.
"I believe they're all solvable. If there is the political will," Conrad said after the meeting. "The big question mark is the U.S. If the U.S. is not willing to be a part of the global game, it will make it so easy for other countries to walk. I see good signs from China, India and Brazil. I'm more hopeful that they are going to do something than the U.S."
He added that if climate legislation now stalled in the U.S. Congress does not pass by December, "it has the potential to cast a very cold wind on the [Copenhagen] negotiations. Or, conversely, it could really energize them."
Conrad has some experience with breakthroughs. During the 2007 climate talks in Bali, he was credited with sparking one when, after the U.S. had stalled talks by asking for more commitments from developing nations, Conrad made this startling statement to the United States: "There's an old saying — 'If you're not willing to lead, then get out of the way.' And I would ask the United States, we ask for your leadership, we seek your leadership. But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way."
Incipient REDD programs are already in place. Norway's International Climate and Forest Initiative, announced in December 2007, pledges 3 billion Norwegian krone ($521 million) towards REDD. The World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility is testing pilot programs and helping developing nations build capacity for a future REDD program.
However, some claim that programs like REDD could possibly produce so many carbon credits that they will essentially allow polluters in industrialized countries to continue polluting as long as they pay to preserve forests.
The president of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, emphasized after the meeting that REDD programs only work in addition to cuts in industrialized countries.
"You need tough domestic action on the part of industrialized countries, but even with that tough domestic action, you will not be able to meet the target, so there will be a market for offsets," he said. "There's an estimation that you need some 17 GT of cuts by 2020 to put us on a sustainable path. Developed countries which have been studied by McKinsey & Company can technically and economically, at less than 60 euros per ton, deliver only five of those 17."
Bill Barclay, policy director at the Rainforest Action Network, says his organization advocates rules that would prevent fossil-fuel emitters from buying REDD credits as a way of avoiding making their own emissions cuts.
Advocates would also like to see the definition of forest changed from the Kyoto Protocol.
"Currently, they don't distinguish between any kind of intact natural rainforest and a plantation," Barclay says. "Under the definitions, they're all classified as forest. What this means is that if the country plants a plantation, according to the definition, there's no change, it's still forest. So this is a potentially huge loophole, where countries would be getting credit for destroying rainforests. ... If they are both indistinguishable by definition, people will convert rainforest to plantations."
Making REDD effective will involve addressing the demand for the products that drive deforestation: pulp, palm, paper and oil, Barclay says. Doing so will help prevent illegal logging. An effective REDD program will also respect the rights of the indigenous peoples in these countries, he says.
"There's a real question and insecurity that, if in a rush for REDD money, governments fail to take the customary tenures [of indigenous peoples] into account, that local people will be displaced, they won't get benefits. And ultimately, that will undermine the effectiveness of the approach, because you need the full participation of these people to protect these forests."
But before these particularities can be hammered out, one question needs to be answered, as expressed by Guyana's Jagdeo at the UN event:
"We can't talk around the fringes of the issue. We need to come to the core point. Will there be adequate funds? If we do not have the money to deal with the lowest cost abatement solution, how will we deal with the other problems?"