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At Copenhagen climate change talks, researchers tout keeping trees as a solution

Researchers at the Copenhagen global warning talks say they're finding success in reducing emissions by encouraging tropical countries to protect their forests.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / December 9, 2009

An activist from the AVAZZ organization (People in Action) looks out of a giant tree as he participates in a demonstration against the cutting of trees at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Tuesday.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

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COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – If you want to help apply the brakes to global warming, save some trees – especially if they are in the tropics.

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That's the simple idea behind one approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. And it's gained enough traction to become one of the few success stories so far at UN-sponsored global warming summit here in Copenhagen.

Delegates from more than 190 countries are grappling with difficult issues of money and emissions targets as they try to craft a follow-on to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

But while negotiators engage in diplomatic arm wrestling over emissions reductions and funding to help poor countries adopt cleaner technologies, and scientists present evidence of the dangers of carbon emissions, they are having a much easier time getting behind avoiding additional carbon dioxide (C02) emissions by keeping trees in the ground. It's an approach known by the acronym "REDD."

Talks over REDD's inclusion in any new climate agreement "are moving very well," said Markku Kanninen, senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia. "It's one of the few issues that have no big difficulties," he told reporters.

In many ways, the approach is seen as low-hanging fruit in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Tropical forests are losing some 32 million acres a year, researchers say. This pumps about 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.

During the 1990s, deforestation accounted for some 20 percent of global CO2 emissions from human activities. That fell to 12 percent in 2008, according to the latest figures from the Global Carbon Project. Others have dubbed that an underestimate. And scientists with the project acknowledge large uncertainties in their estimate.

Still, holding back deforestation and forest degradation can be an important arrow in the emissions-mitigation quiver, many analysts say. And it provides a way for developing countries, who have resisted economy-wide emission reductions as a threat to lifting their people out of poverty, to take an active role in the fight against global warming.

Last month, for instance, Brazil offered to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 36 to 39 percent below current levels by 2020. Some 80 percent of those cuts would come from halting deforestation. The offer hinges on getting sufficient aid from rich countries to ramp up the country's efforts.

On Tuesday, negotiators made significant progress on the scientific and technical issues surrounding REDD, according to Rane Cortez, a forest carbon-policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy, an international conservation group that has helped pioneer the concept.

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