Forests Deal Lurching Forward in Copenhagen

In a new development roughly 45 countries with tropical rainforests are proposing to cut their deforestation by a quarter in 5 years as part of a deal to be finalized next week at the Copenhagen climate conference.

That was the statement by Kevin Conrad*, a negotiator with Papua New Guinea, at a press conference today. Behind closed doors negotiators are making headway towards an agreement that would for the first time put cutting deforestation under the U.N. climate treaty. But a number of key issues related to the U.N. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries—also known as REDD—are still leading to acrimony and may get table and remain unresolved when political leaders arrive in Copenhagen next week to finalize a general framework.

The funds that might support forest protection are slowly coming together. Yesterday President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom said they wanted 20% of global mitigation finance to go to REDD. “If all of these things comes together we can get going on forests now and not continue to watch them burn while we wait for a treaty to be worked out,” said Andrew Mitchell, director of the Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of 29 organizations fighting deforestation. “This is one of the best deals on the table at Copenhagen for getting carbon out of the atmosphere quickly.”

Currently 17% to 18% of all carbon emissions come from deforestation, and Jeremy Oppenheim an economist with McKinsey in London, said that most feasible scenarios he has studied to keep global temperature rises below 2˚C require obtaining a third of emissions cuts from REDD.

One of the technical issues negotiators have decided to pass on to the next round of negotiations after Copenhagen is how countries with tropical rainforests ought to get credit for deforestation efforts. The United States and Colombia proposed a project-by-project approach that matched language in the U.S. House of Representatives legislation passed in June. Under that approach, a nation would get credit for halting deforestation in certain areas, but would need not fully account for national totals. But other countries, including Papua New Guinea, say that approach would allow deforestation to "leak" into unprotected areas and lower the value of projects. For a small island nation hoping to get support for its efforts to stem deforestation, that’s “suicide,” said Conrad.

It's a dispute that will remain unresolved for now. "They just decided to table that until next time," said Gus Silva-Chávez, a negotiator with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washingon, D.C. Same, probably, with the worry by some scientists that funds for REDD might incentivize the cutting down of forests to turn them into timber plantations.  intact national forests to convert them into plantations, ostensibly for biofuels. “From a scientific point of view this is a loss of carbon,” said Doug Boucher, of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But is proving difficult to get it into the negotiation text.” Another is an agreement to protect the right of indigenous people.

Silva-Chávez said that one surprise in negotiations had been that the stated objective of cutting global deforestation in half by 2020—a goal that has been in draft documents for about a year—suddenly became an issue. “The chair of the negotiating session asked the group where that number came from -- nobody knew," he said. The problem was resolved when Silva-Chávez and others pointed to economic modeling which suggested that stopping deforestation beyond that point would be particularly expensive.

Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the Hadley Centre of the U.K.’s Met office presented to reporters in Copenhagen today a new analysis of modeling data showing how conserving tropical forests is going to be crucial if the world is to make a target of 2˚C, even under the most conservative projections of how much carbon the forests contain.

“Roughly around a billion tons of carbon a year comes from deforestation across the planet, compared to around 8.5 billion tons from fossil fuel emissions,” said Betts. “Deforestation matters if we are to stabilize climate change at low levels.“

Betts has performed new calculations to show how many parts per million of CO2 (and CO2 equivalent for other greenhouse gases) will end up in the atmosphere if tropical forests were totally deforested.

His calculations, based on 2008 figures for the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, show that even assuming a lower estimate of forest carbon content, total and equivalent CO2 would level out at 476 parts per million, even if we stopped all fossil fuel use immediately. Assuming the higher estimate, the eventual level of CO2 equivalents is 569 ppm. According to the Hadley model, that could mean world temperatures stabilizing at a more than 3˚C increase. “If deforestation is left unchecked we will definitely see the two degree target exceeded and maybe even the three degree target,” Betts said.

Forests not only store carbon that will be emitted with deforestation, they also act as an important carbon sink, which have a key role in further buffering climate change. Betts said that more than 40 measuring stations across the Amazon suggest that that forest alone takes up about 1.79 billion tonnes of carbon a year. “So if we lose the forests not only do we emit more carbon into the atmosphere we reduce our capacity to remove other carbon from the atmosphere, so it’s a double whammy.”

*The original version of the story had the wrong name for Kevin Conrad. It has been corrected in the text.