The scene was one for the history books. Kevin Conrad, representing the small tropical nation of Papua New Guinea, stood up at the 2007 climate negotiations in Bali, Indonesia. He gave the United States two options: Either lead or "get out of the way." The dramatic moment broke a deadlock at the time.
Today, some analysts believe that a plan to save the world's rainforests, championed then by Conrad in Bali, could again carry the day -- this time at international climate talks in Copenhagen in December aimed at drafting a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol.
While the United States and China continue to hedge on their broader commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, negotiators have made steady progress on the plan, known by its acronym REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.
The underlying concept seems simple at first glance. Industrialized countries pay to lock carbon into developing nations' forests. The money, if directed as intended, would provide a long-absent motive for local landowners and indigenous populations to abstain from clear-cutting their trees to create ranches, plantations and farms. Conservationists hope it will save the rainforests where decades of other efforts have fallen short.
"We have to value forests when they are alive and standing. Presently, we only value them when they're dead," Conrad told reporters yesterday. He spoke after a high-level meeting at the United Nations yesterday, attended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and key world leaders.
A deal with appeal to rich and poor nations
Those who have watched REDD's development since it was first placed on the international agenda by Papua New Guinea in 2005, say that it may provide the best hope for a concrete deal that includes nations both rich and poor.
"I regard it as having the potential to be at center stage in Copenhagen as a mechanism for breaking logjam and enabling an overall agreement," said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. She said yesterday's meeting was encouraging because many prominent leaders attended and declared the importance of REDD in the broader framework.
REDD is powerful because it is one of the quickest and cheapest available options for slowing the trajectory of rising temperatures in the atmosphere. Deforestation causes nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of the world's entire transport sector. Indonesia and Brazil are, respectively, the world's third- and fourth-largest emitting nations. In Brazil, deforestation is responsible for 70 percent of emissions.
"Protecting tropical forests is one of the most affordable ways to reduce climate pollution," Glenn Hurowitz, Washington director of the nonprofit Avoided Deforestation Partners.
According to figures cited at the U.N. meeting, a ballpark of $22 billion to 36 billion dollars of global investment in REDD by 2015 -- a relatively small amount in the grand climate financing scheme -- could cut global deforestation rates by a quarter.
That low cost is a big carrot for the United States. At a bargain price of about $5 a ton, REDD credits could either slash expenses in meeting emissions targets or afford lawmakers the flexibility to propose more lofty aims. For example, the cost of the climate legislation passed by the House, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), would rise by 89 percent without its international offset options, most of which would come from tropical forest projects, U.S. EPA estimated.
So far, the U.S. and other big emitters sit on their wallets
But at the United Nations yesterday, big emitters, including the United States, backed away from offering firm financing to fund REDD goals, echoing deadlocks seen elsewhere in the negotiations. "Developing nations are willing to lead, provided they work in partnership with developed nations and receive the required financial and technical support," said Secretary-General Ban.
Those very developing nations also lamented the lack of progress. "There isn't adequate financing currently on the table," said Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo. The president said that he and others were expending precious political capital championing a cause that could potentially slow their development, while Western nations refused to do the same.
And a focus on the potential pitfalls of REDD, rather than its benefits, means that it is not receiving the attention it needs to be included prominently in a Copenhagen agreement, he said.
But embedded in those pitfalls are other open questions that have yet to be resolved beyond the issue of cold, hard cash: namely, how and to whom that money will be delivered, who will claim credit and responsibility for the carbon output avoided, and how it all fits into a broader climate deal.
Brazil and the United States are the two countries with perhaps the most at stake in the answers. High-level leaders of the former were notably absent from yesterday's meeting and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the program to attend, did not come due to a scheduling conflict.
Brazil has sovereignty worries
For years, Brazil's leaders, fearful of ceding sovereignty over its own lands, opposed any discussion of tropical deforestation in climate negotiations. But since 2003, the country has reversed that attitude and has also promised to slash its forestry emissions by an impressive 80 percent by 2020, with the help of a $1 billion investment from Norway.
The Amazon nation, however, has big reservations about sharing the fruits of its efforts by offering credits on a market, which could ultimately give the United States a free pass to make fewer of its own sacrifices. Instead, it wants to receive most of its funds outright to meet its own goals, although even that stance is slipping as powerful state leaders push Brazil's leadership for access to open markets, said Hurowitz of Avoided Deforestation Partners.
Less powerful countries are also pushing back. The Coalition for Rainforest Nations, a bloc of 32 countries, including Indonesia and Guyana, wants developed nations to fund two successive REDD start-up phases. These would help individual countries build the capacity to create, measure and verify legitimate forest carbon projects, according to Federica Bietta, deputy director of the coalition, which Conrad heads.
Ultimately, the coalition envisions a third phase, one that is key to the United States: credits sold to the market to offset buyers' emissions. This market approach, the coalition believes, would make it harder for a few countries to monopolize the wealth.
And African nations in the Congo Basin, which have so far maintained more of their forests, don't want to be left out of the pool. That may eventually require a different payment plan to reward landowners despite their low historic deforestation rates. "The Copenhagen process must not leave precious forests like the Congo Basin unprotected just because it is not so-called 'high risk,'" wrote Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo, in an op-ed in the Boston Globe this week.
Such insurance will also prevent loggers and ranchers from getting visas and moving to new nations where they can still slash and burn. This is a prospect several small island nations, slated to disappear off the map as sea level rises, fear the most.
A game changer for negotiations
In the end, the power of progress on REDD is also in how it could change the negotiating dynamic.
Depending on its structure, a forest payment plan could allow major emitters, such as Brazil, to adopt binding emissions targets financed in part by international funds. Smaller nations, such as Papua New Guinea and many African countries, meanwhile, could use the aid to prove they are contributing what they can to global goals.
And because U.S. businesses so desperately want the cost savings of offset credits, the scheme gives tropical nations leverage to push the United States to adopt more stringent emissions targets. Brazil, for example, has signaled that it plans to do exactly this, said Hurowitz. That dynamic tension could even nudge along a U.S. deal with China, said Environmental Defense Fund counsel Petsonk.
Despite all the talk, however, there have been few projects of substantial size that would now measure up to what everyone involved promises will be stringent integrity standards.
Although both the United Nations and the World Bank have raised millions of dollars to prepare nations to stem the tide of carbon leaving their forests, these funds have not yet been filled, and billions more will ultimately be needed, said the Coalition for Rainforest Nations' Bietta. Hurowitz said that some countries may be willing to commit to REDD funding before Copenhagen, while others -- like the United States -- will be loath to get ahead of domestic legislation.
The pending U.S. legislation does look promising. The Waxman-Markey bill would offer 5 percent of annual emissions revenues to fund extra emissions reductions through tropical forest projects, and would also permit up to 2 billion tons a year of offsets. And yesterday, dozens of prominent U.S. ecologists wrote to President Obama, urging him to definitively link tropical forest conservation with his global climate mission.
But as with the broader negotiations, progress is slow. "So far, it's all talk. There is no REDD," said the Environmental Defense Fund's tropical forest policy director, Steve Schwartzman. But he said efforts to change that over the next few months look promising. "You can really see some light at the end of the tunnel."
Reporter Nathanial Gronewold contributed from New York.