A global climate treaty looks far off, but Cancun may reach a key agreement on how to fight deforestation, a top cause of carbon emissions. The REDD scheme aims to reward developing nations for preserving their forests.
Rainforest is illegally burnt to turn it into arable land
A pact on reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries - known to negotiators as REDD or "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation" - appears to be close to an international agreement at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun.
"There's a really strong chance that we will get a solid agreement," said Rane Cortez, the senior forest carbon advisor for the Nature Conservancy environmental group.
"There is a lot of consensus coming on the text, but we need a few tweaks to get everyone onboard," she added.
The programme was launched in September 2008 and consists largely of offering financial incentives to developing countries such as Brazil, Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of Congo to save their tropical forests.
Deforestation accounts for almost one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the entire global transport sector causes.
CO2 released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels like oil and coal can be absorbed and stored by forests until the forest dies. Yet even though that's a well established fact, deforestation is continuing at a rapid pace.
Each year, an estimated 13 million hectares of forest - mainly rain forest - is destroyed. That's equivalent to the area of a country like Greece.
Sources of Greenhouse gasses - deforestation accounts for 17 percent of global emissions
A simple concept
The principle behind REDD is simple. The idea is to reward developing nations that preserve their forests, boost the carbon stock, and have sustainable forestry management.
Currently, forests in developing countries are often cleared to make way for plantations, agricultural land or livestock. In order to give people there the chance to make a different living, developed countries would under the REDD scheme have to pay for the environmental services which these forests perform if they are left intact.
A fair deal, one might think - not least in view of the fact that developed nations are historically responsible for the ever-increasing CO2 in the atmosphere - and thus for global climate change.
Since a hectare of a palm oil plantation or arable land brings in more money than a hectare of rainforest, compensation should be agreed on an international level, according to the reasoning behind the REDD concept.
Cumulative CO2 emissions (1850-2000) show USA and Europe have been the biggest poluters
Money money money
But even if it sounds like a logical solution, the simplicity ends when money comes into play.
What form this compensation should take and who should finance it are in dispute. Some negotiators say that only public money should go to REDD. But others say it is more realistic to set up a market approach that would allow nations to swap assistance for credits in emission reduction goals.
Sha Zukang, the UN undersecretary for economic and social affairs, said funding so far has been insufficient even though the forest issue was critical for the "protection of the environment, social development and the fight against poverty."
Developed nations have pledged some 4.5 billion dollars for REDD. The leading financial contributor is Norway, which among other projects has committed to provide one billion dollars for Indonesia which plans a two-year moratorium on new clearing of natural forests and peat lands from 2011.
What is a forest?
But even before negotiators get to the sticky issue of money, "the debate about the REDD agreement begins with the definition of the term 'forest'," said Christoph Thies of Greenpeace.
To date no agreement has been reached in the negotiations: Some also want plantations to count as forests, while others think the term should only refer to primary forests.
Greenpeace doesn't want plantations to be counted as "forests"
"For us at Greenpeace it' quite clear: a forest is a natural ecosystem that is dominated by trees - but not a plantation. A tree plantation follows the principles of agriculture and is more of a tree farm for us," Thies said.
A tree farm or a plantation hardly stores any CO2. Even worse: To make room for the plantation, rain forest has to be cleared - and in this way CO2 and methane is released into the atmosphere. If this were rewarded in a REDD agreement, Thies thinks it would lose all credibility.
Who does the forest belong to?
Worldwide, over a billion people live off the forest - many of them belong to indigenous people that have not only lived in the forest, but also from the forest. The Norwegian Rainforest Foundation wants to support and strengthen precisely this population, said Lars Loevold. He said that involving indigenous peoples in the debate was not just an ethical question but a strategic decision.
"We are 100 percent convinced that forest protection will only work if we recognize the traditional communal rights of these people," Loevold said.
"For centuries they have maintained and protected the forests. What looks to us in the west like untouched rain forest, is in fact the result of a very complex ecosystem within which humans have also played a role for centuries. In this life cycle, a richer biodiversity has been created than if no people had lived there," Loevold added.
Studies show that indigenous people can look after forest better than national parks
Local administration is more successful than national parks
New research supports Loevold's argument that forests which are managed by indigenous peoples and local communities are better protected and have a greater biodiversity than, for example, national parks.
To enable people who actually live from and with the forests to have their voice heard at international climate negotiations, the Norwegian Rainforest Foundation have paid the travel costs of indigenous representatives from all around the world.
The demands of indigenous peoples have become an essential part of climate negotiations. The point for the director of the Norwegian Rainforest foundation at REDD negotiations in Cancun is that the forests should not just degenerate into a short-term investment.
"Until now it has been profitable to destroy the rain forest. Some earned money with deforestation, but they didn't have to pay for the costs of the destruction. The REDD agreement is about finding mechanisms which reward people who protect forests, and punish those who destroy the forest," said Lars Loevold.
This issue is being addressed by the 194 member countries at the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico. An agreement seems within reach.
Author: Helle Jeppesen, Natalia Dannenberg (AFP)
Editor: Andreas Illmer