Efforts to map the way to a post-Kyoto climate treaty have sailed into rough water this week. But amid the turbulence, a key climate initiative is gathering momentum.
Dubbed REDD, it would reward nations for keeping chain saws out of threatened tropical forests, serving as a powerful magnet that could pull several developing countries with significant emissions into a new global-warming pact.
Deforestation accounts for roughly 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that human activities pump into the atmosphere. This means "REDD is going to be a critical element of a global deal" on climate for 2013 and beyond, says Andrew Deutz, senior policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy.
This week, the World Bank pledged $160 million for pilot projects to test the idea, with Norway chipping in an additional $5 million. In response, some 30 developing nations expressed strong interest in the idea, first proposed by Costa Rica and Papua-New Guinea at the 2005 UN climate talks in Montreal. Even the US-based Nature Conservancy – a group that typically finds itself asking others for cash – has ponied up $1 million toward the effort.
REDD, shorthand for "reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation," is a triple winner, explains the organization's Dr. Deutz. Developing countries would set targets for avoided deforestation and earn carbon credits for beating those targets, but would incur no penalty if they fall short of their goals. Those credits would be in demand among industrial countries as a relatively cheap way for them to meet more-stringent emissions reduction goals. And the move could protect biodiversity and preserve the critical services healthy forests provide.
The bottom line: Developing countries could pocket from $2.3 billion to $23 billion a year from avoiding deforestation under REDD, according to Frances Seymour, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Jakarta, Indonesia. The range reflects different assumptions about the price of carbon on international markets and on the expanse of forest involved. And as talks on crafting a framework for negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol wind down here, REDD looks as though it will be incorporated into that framework, analysts here say.
Tough negotiations in Bali
Efforts to craft such a post-Kyoto road map grew testy on Thursday after the European Union threatened to boycott a US summit of major emitters next month. The EU perceives the meeting, as well as US balking here in Bali, as efforts to dilute or derail the UN process. The highest-profile issue has been a reference that cites scientists' projection that to hold global warming to about 3.6 degrees F., global emissions must fall from 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels. EU leaders are baffled and angry that the wording, which the White House didn't object to in a pre-Bali agreement, suddenly has become an apparent deal breaker for the US.
Including the 25-to-40 percent range would signal that industrial countries remain serious about making further emissions cuts – a key factor in getting developing countries to agree to take part in a post-Kyoto deal.
While REDD has also been championed as a way to get developing nations on board, the idea has its critics. Groups championing indigenous people's rights say they doubt that many if any of the benefits from REDD would trickle down to the people who need it most. And it could trigger land grabs by individuals or companies who want to cash in on REDD's credits.
Others, such as Marina Silva, Brazil's environment minister, argue that the use of credits in conjunction with REDD would allow industrial countries to duck their responsibility for reducing their own emissions.
Still, what a difference seven years make. At the 2000 global climate talks in The Hague, environmental groups split on the issue of getting credit for the carbon reservoirs that forests build up protested each others' press conferences. Now, most environmental groups back the idea.
Several factors account for the change, says Claudia McMurray, US assistant secretary of State for Oceans, Environment, and Science. One is a recognition of what impact deforestation can have on a country's ranking as a greenhouse-gas emitter, she explains. Indonesia and Brazil are third- and fourth-worst globally, after China and the US, because of deforestation and the wildfires related to it, she says.
In addition, the science related to forests, their carbon content, and the processes that can boost or reduce emissions has improved.
And politically, tropical-forest countries are joining forces to press for help on the issue in ways they haven't been able to for other issues. They recognize that "rates of deforestation are really staggering, and if nothing is done – in the climate arena or anywhere – we're going to lose some very precious forests," says Ms. McMurray.
Earlier this week, the Woods Hole Research Center unveiled a study on the impact climate is having on tropical forests in the Amazon and on the impact deforestation there has on climate.
REDD a 'powerful proposal'
"If current trends continue, by 2030 ... 55 percent of the Amazon will have been cleared or impoverished by some combination of logging, drought, and fire," says Daniel Nepstad, the scientist who compiled the report. "In my 23 years working in the Amazon, I've never seen so may powerful forces coming together" to threaten the world's largest tropical forest.
He calls REDD a "very powerful proposal" that could play a significant role in holding back the tide of deforestation.
Over the past several years, researchers have been whittling away at some of the technical problems that made forest issues so contentious at past climate talks.
For instance, Sandra Brown, of Winrock International in Arlington, Va., this week unveiled the results of work she and her colleagues have done to develop mapping techniques that highlight areas vulnerable to deforestation.
And satellite technology has been a major help in developing baseline estimates of the amount of carbon a forest holds, notes Doug Boucher, with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Within the next five to 10 years, he says, remote sensing technology will become still more precise – determining the species of trees, as well as their height and distribution over spaces as small as a few yards.
But enthusiasm for REDD is tempered by an acknowledged lack of experience with it. That's why pilot projects such as those the World Bank aims to underwrite are important.
Some argue that to halt deforestation, countries may need to restructure their ministries, bringing portfolios such as agriculture and energy into the environment ministry. Carlos Rodgriguez, former minister of environment and energy in Costa Rica, says that was crucial to his country's success at halting and in some areas reversing tropical deforestation.
These practical considerations may frustrate those developing countries who are eager to jump on the REDD bandwagon now, suggests CIFOR's Ms. Seymour. "We're going to be facing a tension between dealing with climate change as an emergency, reducing emissions as quickly as possible, but doing so at a pace that makes sure we don't make mistakes by rushing forward too quickly and not having the institutions in place to make sure it's successful," she says.