Time Running Out in Copenhagen

By New York Times, New York Times - December 17, 2009

Most of the news from Copenhagen is grim. With only two days left to go, negotiations for a new climate treaty were stumbling toward stalemate. We hope President Obama and other leaders will realize how much is at stake and pull off a last-minute breakthrough.

The talks appear to have produced at least one positive development: a tentative agreement under which rich countries would pay poorer countries to save the world’s rain forests. If rich countries agree to mandatory caps on emissions — still a big if — they would be able to use these payments to offset their own emissions while they make the transition to cleaner energy sources.

That would be a good deal for both rich and poor countries and an even better deal for the planet. Deforestation accounts for nearly one-fifth of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions — about the same as China’s and America’s and more than the emissions generated by all the world’s cars, trucks, buses and airplanes.

Negotiators need to build on this progress to produce, at the very least, an interim political consensus setting the stage for a more detailed, comprehensive and legally binding agreement next year.

As of Wednesday, the talks were deeply divided over broad emissions targets and how much rich countries should pay poor countries to help them meet these targets. There are also differences over how to verify whether nations are living up to their obligations.

The idea of having rich nations pay poorer nations not to destroy their forests was floated in the Kyoto talks in 1996 and shot down by environmental groups who argued that it would allow rich countries to buy their way out of their obligations. This was a colossal blunder for which the world has been paying ever since.

Roughly 30 million acres of rain forest disappear every year, releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide stored in the trees and exacting collateral damage in decreased water quality and impoverished biodiversity.

A deforestation agreement in Copenhagen would dovetail neatly with climate legislation passed by the House and by the Senate’s environment committee.

Under both bills, companies that cannot meet their pollution limits could win credit for investing in carbon-reduction programs abroad — including efforts to stop deforestation. That could generate as much as $12 billion in private investment. The House bill would also set aside an estimated $3 billion in direct payments to be funneled to poor countries; the Obama administration announced Wednesday that it would provide a minimum of $1 billion for that purpose over three years.

Contributions just from America would go a long way toward meeting the $40 billion a year that some experts think will be necessary to help poor countries monitor and police their forests — and to compensate their citizens for the lost income from logging, ranching and farming if they agree to leave their forests intact.

A climate bill from Congress is no more a sure thing than a new global agreement. The fact that leaders everywhere are at last facing up to the destructiveness of deforestation is reassuring. But it’s hardly enough.

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