Copenhagen Could Generate a Real Commitment to Slowing Deforestation

When I attended the climate talks in Bali in 2007, I realized that while the stage-crafted plenary sessions on emissions targets are a critical part of these negotiations, the quieter, sideline debates over specific details like financing or verifying reductions are just as important.

I expect the same will be true in Copenhagen. Negotiators will reach agreement on several key issues, and in turn, these agreements will become the building blocks of the final international treaty that will be signed in the coming months.

I believe one of those agreements will be about how to solve the crisis of deforestation--the source of 15 percent of the world’s global warming pollution. There are huge swaths of tropical forest in Africa, Asia, and South America that could continue to act as critical carbon sinks--but only if the financial incentives and the market values shift toward preserving forests rather than depleting them.

It is likely that in Copenhagen the international community will commit to reducing the rate of deforestation by a specific amount, possibly 50 percent by 2020.

Why do I think this agreement will be reached? There is strong political momentum behind stopping deforestation.

Most nations view it as a win-win strategy that solves a number of additional problems, such as poverty, poor water quality, and social unrest. It is also thought to be a reasonably low-cost approach to reducing emissions. After all, some of the key drivers of deforestation--soy farms, cattle ranches, and palm oil plantations--don’t have a high financial rate of return, so it is possible to incentivize people to shift to other economic opportunities that protect forests.

But there is something even more powerful behind the political momentum: this initiative has been led primarily by developing nations.

The Coalition for Rainforest Nations, initiated by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, has pushed hard for this. And it changes the nature of the conversation when the developing nations shape the debate instead of having the developed world telling them what to do.

Indeed, Brazil and Indonesia--both of which have already lost record amounts of tropical rainforest--have committed to reducing their rates of deforestation. Brazil has backed that up with a clear target to curb deforestation rates, its own resources for an “Amazon Fund,” and concrete actions to reach the target (including addressing illegal logging). These steps have already had a noticeable impact on the country’s deforestation rate, which has seen a very dramatic reduction.  

Copenhagen will give Brazil and other nations a chance to translate those domestic commitments into an international agreement, and hopefully other nations will follow suit and use the talks to present their own plans to reduce deforestation.

It is true that when you get 192 countries together in one place, there is bound to be disagreement. But when it comes to deforestation, the differences of opinion are actually narrower than on other issues such as verifying emission reductions, and thus easier to reconcile. For instance, negotiators will have to hash out the scope of deforestation funding--what portion should go to nations preventing deforestation and what should go to those trying to increase forest coverage.

But even as we resolve the final details, we already agree on a number of strategies that we know can help prevent the loss of more tropical forests. Deforestation is a complex social issue, and different sets of tools work in different nation, but we have enough tools in hand now to begin fighting this crisis.

That’s something we can all agree on.