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Can tropical forests save the world?

By Nalin Srivastava, IANS,

Expectations about a new global climate deal have reached a fever pitch with only a few weeks to go before the start of the 15th annual United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen to finalise a global climate pact beyond 2012, when the first term of the Kyoto Protocol will expire.

Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 to supplement the UN climate agreement of 1992 that sought to curb through international cooperation the global emissions of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming by trapping the heat from the sun in the atmosphere.

One of the most important parts of this deal would be the agreement on world’s tropical forests whose destruction adds about a fifth of the overall annual global emissions of greenhouse gases.

Tropical forests are amongst the world’s biggest reservoirs of carbon. Their destruction releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, tropical forests are disappearing at an annual rate of seven million hectares, an area about the size of France, mostly due to the pressures of growing population, rapid economic development and poor governance in developing countries.

The UN climate change deal on tropical forests is supposed to help these countries protect their forests by getting developed countries to pay them for their efforts. Its importance also lies in the fact that it offers one of the cheapest ways to prevent greenhouse gases emissions.

Popularly known as REDD, short for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation’, talks on saving the world’s tropical forests to prevent global warming have taken place in fits and starts in the UN climate change negotiations since Montreal four years ago.

Originally proposed by a group of developing countries led by Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, talks on REDD began in right earnest only after the climate conference in Bali two years ago that agreed on the Bali Action Plan, the blueprint for the post-2012 climate regime.

Talks on REDD, however, have been hobbled by differing viewpoints amongst countries, especially developed and developing countries, on many key issues such as the source of financing, the scale and scope of REDD activities and how the efforts will be measured and accounted.

Moreover, there are strong apprehensions in many quarters, particularly the NGO community, about how REDD is going to affect the rights and livelihoods of indigenous people living in the forests and biodiversity.

A major bone of contention is the source of financing of REDD activities. Many countries, among them global deforestation hotspots like Brazil, believe that REDD should be financed by a multilateral fund. Others tend to favour financing through a market for emissions reductions from REDD that developed countries will use to offset their own emissions.

There are also differing opinions on whether it should only credit the efforts in reducing deforestation or forest degradation, something that favours countries with high past deforestation rates like Brazil and Indonesia, or whether it should broaden its scope to include planting of new forests and improvement or maintenance of existing forest cover, that would benefit countries like India and China that have not deforested much in the past and have in fact improved their forest cover.

India’s major success in this process has been to have the latter approach included and it will try very hard to push it through in the final outcome.

If at all an agreement on REDD is reached in Copenhagen, the major challenge to implement it would be to get developing countries, some of which are amongst the poorest in the world, to be able to put in place national laws and policies to curb deforestation on the one hand and enhance their capacity to measure and report the greenhouse gas emissions from their forests on the other.

The role of developed countries and international organisations like the UN bodies would be crucial in this regard. Developing countries like India and Brazil that already have advanced systems to monitor their forests can also play an important role. Even more important would be the willingness of the developed world to put up the money in advance to jump-start the REDD activities even before they are in a position to benefit from the credits from them.

As people everywhere wait with bated breath for the start of the Copenhagen climate talks that many believe will decide the fate of planet earth, tropical forests and their role in saving the world are once again in the spotlight.

If the world community fails to reach an agreement on this, one of the most significant opportunities in combating climate change would be lost in the thickets of narrow self-interest. To mix metaphors a bit, let’s not lose sight of the wood for the trees.

(17-11-2009-The writer works for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These are his personal views. He can be contacted at [email protected])