Tropical deforestation, mainly in Brazil and Indonesia, releases massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, but political, social, and scientific concerns kept the issue off the table during negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol.

As the world prepares for a Kyoto successor, the climate has changed, so to speak, both because reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries (REDD) may be essential to achieving short-term emissions goals, and because potential financial and other benefits for developing countries are coming into focus. As a result, REDD has emerged as a major issue in the climate change negotiations, and a topic of interest for anyone who wants to understand these proceedings or explain them to others.

“I have never seen anything like this level of interest in nations-wide forest conservation programs,” says Dan Nepstad, with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, California, who has studied Amazon forests and pushed for their protection for some 25 years, “It’s quite amazing that we’re at this level.”

First, the Basics

Some of the numbers involved remain unsettled, and the ways that trees interact with and affect the climate are complex, but the basic climate impact of deforestation is straightforward.

About 25 percent of all the carbon stored on land is in the world’s tropical forests. When those trees are cut down, the carbon they contain makes its way back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In tropical areas, clearing of forest lands makes way for farmland and cattle ranches, and the chopped wood is typically burned, leading to a quick release of carbon. Even if the trees are piled aside, decay releases the carbon in relatively short order.

Current levels of deforestation contribute about 1 to 1.5 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year, a rate equivalent to about four-fifths of the entire planned reductions of the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol. Preventing such deforestation keeps the carbon stored away, which amounts to an immediate decrease in emissions. By comparison, the transition to sustainable energy sources takes far more time, and is generally more costly.

Despite the benefits of preventing deforestation, when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1992, REDD wasn’t considered a potential component of the overall plan. The primary focus was on what developed nations could do to stem their emissions, because they had contributed the vast majority of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to begin with. At that time, there were no clear benefits to inspire developing nations to participate in the agreement, so representatives from these countries came to Kyoto mainly to see what wealthier nations were going to do.

The Road to Copenhagen

In stark contrast to the effective shunning of REDD in Kyoto, by the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, the first major step toward establishing a Kyoto successor, REDD had become a major focus despite remaining concerns. Not surprisingly, money has been the simple motivator for this dramatic shift. Estimating the cost per ton of carbon emissions prevented for REDD for a cap and trade system is challenging, but there nonetheless is general agreement that REDD can be one of the least expensive options. At a more basic level, as various nations have worked to reduce emissions since Kyoto, it has become increasingly clear that serious atmospheric greenhouse gas reductions demands using every tool available.

With European nations already capping and trading, and the increased potential for similar systems to begin in the U.S. and elsewhere, tropical nations now can see the potential for their own substantial financial benefits, and dozens of them came to Bali ready to negotiate.

Seeing REDD Benefits Beyond Dollars

REDD also offers major benefits beyond immediate financial gain. Saving forests and actively managing them over the long term can prevent flooding and landslides and reduce the prevalence and extent of forest fires, and it can also prevent reductions in rainfall, because evaporation from trees contributes to cloud formation. That’s a critical concern in Brazil, because continued forest destruction, researchers say, could mean less rainfall over the country’s Central Plateau, its main grain-producing region.

In addition, as conservationists and others have pointed out for years, even before climate change became a major issue, preserving rainforests also opens recreation and tourism opportunities, and helps preserve biodiversity, including species that produce as yet unknown chemicals with potential for fighting diseases.

The Bali Road Map, created to guide development of a Kyoto replacement by the end of 2009 at a meeting in Copenhagen, includes a section that explicitly recognizes the importance of REDD. The Road Map calls for support of REDD activities now under way and exploration of the best options for addressing deforestation in a forthcoming treaty. The plan even called for a special meeting focused primarily on REDD, which took place in Accra, Ghana, in August of 2008.

Major Hurdles in Moving Forward

Just because negotiating interests now are sitting at the same table doesn’t mean all the concerns have been resolved.

There still is no global carbon monitoring system, for instance, which would be all but essential in establishing a major REDD program. But, says Josep Canadell, an ecologist from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization in Canberra, “We can come up with one if there is a will. The biggest issue at this point is [settling on] a system of payments.”

Who is going to pay, how much, who is going to get the money intended to prevent deforestation, and how that money will be distributed – all are questions that governments, non-governmental organizations, and researchers are grappling with now, and it will surprise few if there are a few brawls along the way.

One major concern among countries such as India is that the focus is on programs and payments tied to halting deforestation. That concern, some say, means that countries that have successfully conserved their forests would essentially end up being penalized for their good work, because they wouldn’t receive funds. Protesters at the Bali conference raised the issue.

Fairness to indigenous communities is another controversial topic. From the outset, there have been worries that not enough of the money flowing into developing countries in a REDD system will make it to the indigenous communities whose livelihoods have been affected by REDD efforts. On the flip side, developed nations such as the U.S. and Canada have reservations that indigenous groups might, in a sense, get too many rights, because they fear that a treaty could be worded in such a way that it grants new rights to native groups.

To address these and other issues, more than 30 countries are submitting possible plans. Some ideas now under discussion could solve problems such as the conservation issue by establishing a system that compensates countries for proper maintenance of forests, in addition to halting clear cutting. Besides addressing the conservation protest, such a system could also help settle the issue of longevity: If countries continue to receive funds to maintain healthy forests after deforestation is halted, it could be a major incentive for not resuming deforestation projects that would erase any gains.

Glimpses of the Future?

Some of the pieces needed to establish a workable REDD system are already in place, or in process. California is working to establish its own independent cap and trade system, and is negotiating with leaders of tropical nations to set up the necessary accounting system, which could be a model for a larger-scale program. “California could breathe life into the whole global deal,” says Nepstad.

Those following REDD efforts see this and other developments, including support from the Obama administration for significant climate action despite economic woes, as hopeful signs. Nepstad, of the Moore Foundation, cautions that everything could still fall through, but he says he is strongly encouraged.

“There is sort of this ‘perfect storm’ that could happen before Copenhagen that will demonstrate to the world that this thing is real, so that even the highly industrialized places in the world can see moving into that [REDD] regime,” Nepstad says.

Canadell, with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, is even more optimistic. “The right process will be accepted in the negotiations in Copenhagen,” he says, “I have no doubt about it.”


The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Andes-Amazon Initiative

The Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization

The Global Carbon Project

The United Nations REDD Programme

The Nature Conservancy’s Deforestation Page

The Bali Roadmap

Mark Schrope is a freelance science writer living in Melbourne, FL.