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In Copenhagen, Trees May Carry The Day

An emperor tamarin monkey clings to a tree in the Amazon basin near Madre de Dios, Peru.
John Poole
An emperor tamarin monkey clings to a tree in the Amazon basin near Madre de Dios, Peru.

Climate negotiators in Copenhagen may snatch a small victory from the jaws of defeat Wednesday as they put the final touches on a deal that would pay countries to not cut down trees (growing trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus slow warming). The forestry scheme is outlined in documents that are now circulating among senior environment ministers who've just arrived in Copenhagen.

Meanwhile, the larger questions of emission targets, payments to poor countries and an emission reduction verification system remain unresolved.

With fewer than three days left in the official calendar for the conference, no one expects to see a legally binding deal to create a new climate regime that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which runs through 2012. The forestry scheme, called Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, could be the only formal agreement to emerge.

Delegates worked through the night to resolve several disagreements over how REDD would work. Essentially, countries with a lot of forests would get paid to cut fewer trees than "business as usual," or to keep forests from degrading and thus losing CO2 to the atmosphere. Besides transferring wealth to poorer countries, the scheme gives nations that must, by law, lower their emissions a way to pay someone else to do it instead — at a lower cost than retooling their own factories and power plants.

The REDD scheme had faltered over arguments about how much money would be available and whether it would flow through an international funding institution, such as the World Bank, or through a marketplace. In a marketplace, a country would earn a carbon "credit" for every ton of carbon kept in trees that aren't cut. That credit would be traded through the marketplace to anyone who needed one to offset their own emissions.

Another stumbling block was language to protect the rights of indigenous people to forests they have title to, so that they will be able to profit from REDD. Yet another was language to make sure native forests rather than plantations, such as those that produce palm oil, are favored. Critics of REDD feared that some native forests, preferred by wildlife, might actually be cut down to grow plantations to earn carbon credits. These questions are closer to resolution now.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol did not allow forests to earn carbon credits, so a REDD agreement would open up a new source of emissions reductions. U.S. companies could theoretically participate by buying forest carbon credits, since REDD is included in the climate legislation now in Congress. And many industrialized countries — including the U.S. — have large forests of their own that might generate their own carbon credits in the future.

Another new wrinkle in the REDD scheme would include credits for saving peat bogs. Bogs contain huge amounts of greenhouse gases and could garner large sums of money via carbon crediting. Indonesia in particular has substantial peat resources and is eager to earn income from them.

It would take several years, however, for REDD to get under way. The initial phase, funded by industrialized countries, would focus on training people how to measure the extent of their forests and how fast they grow or are cut down.

While REDD negotiators make progress, delegates assigned to the tough issues of setting international emission reduction targets are getting nowhere. The U.S. and China in particular have been feuding over China's refusal to agree to legally binding emissions reductions, and the U.S.'s refusal to cut emissions beyond its initial proposal of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. China also sparred with the U.S. and the European Union over its refusal to allow outsiders to verify China's voluntary emissions reductions.

Developing countries continue to voice their disdain for the $10 billion a year (over three years) that rich nations have pledged to help poor countries reduce emissions. They want more money and say the industrialized world owes it to them for the decades of carbon pollution the rich are responsible for.

More than 100 world leaders are expected to arrive over the next two days in what was to be a high-level negotiation of a final text. But representatives of Brazil, China, India and Sudan have blocked efforts by the Danish contingent to start that final process, arguing that they haven't been properly consulted on a new draft plan the Danes have circulated. Another draft proposal, from the U.N., drew criticism from the U.S. delegation because it didn't provide for sufficient oversight and verification of emissions cuts from both industrialized and developing countries.

President Obama is scheduled to address the conference Friday.

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