It was Kevin Conrad from the tiny tropical nation of Papua New Guinea who, at the climate negotiations in Bali in 2007, stood before the goliath United States and said "either lead or get out of the way." The U.S. relented and negotiations were able to move forward.
Conrad continues to push for momentum on the international stage, this week joining colleagues championing REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a plan to save the world's rainforests.REDD was was first introduced into the international agenda by Papua New Guinea in 2005 and some analysts now say it could help carry the day at the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen.
"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.
Petsnok spoke after attending a high-level meeting yesterday at the United Nations. The meeting was attended by Conrad and other key world leaders, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The concept of REDD is simple, at least on the surface: Industrialized nations pay to lock in carbon into developing countries' forests, thus providing the much needed incentive for local landowners to refrain from clear-cutting forests for ranches, plantations, and farms.
The benefits of keeping forests intact are numerous: deforestation and forest degradation account for nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the world's cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes combined. Forests store more than one trillion tons of carbon, purify water, protect soils, fend off floods and droughts, and are home to the majority of the world's land-based species - and the cost for all that is simply that they be left healthy and intact. Even in a purely economic sense, standing forests should be protected, yet we have it backwards says Conrad:
We have to value forests when they are alive and standing. Presently, we only value them when they're dead," he told reporters yesterday after the meeting at the UN.
The simplicity in its concept is belied by the devil lurking in the details. Nonetheless, in terms of international climate negotiations, as a means of effectively addressing deforestation and forest health, REDD is low-hanging fruit.
Protecting tropical forests is one of the most affordable ways to reduce climate pollution," said Glenn Hurowitz, Washington director of the nonprofit Avoided Deforestation Partners.
REDD represents one of the quickest and cheapest means available for slowing the trajectory of rising global average temperatures. Indonesia and Brazil, where deforestation is widespread, are the worlds' third and fourth largest emitters. Deforestation accounts for 70% of Brazil's carbon emissions.
Negotiators at the meeting yesterday cited "ballpark" figures of between $22 and 36 billion invested in REDD by 2015 could reduce global emissions by as much as a 25% - a relatively high cost/benefit ratio in the climactic grand scheme of things. For the United States, that could mean that for around $5 a ton, the cost of meeting emissions targets could be significantly reduced, or afford legislators the opportunity to aim for loftier goals.
Meeting the devil
But as we said earlier, the devil is in the details, and despite the promise and potential of REDD to move the world forward and help seal a deal in Copenhagen, many challenges remain.
Large emitting nations, including the U.S., shied away from offering firm financing commitments to fund REDD goals, mirroring logjams seen in other areas of climate negotiations and harkening back to Conrad's words in Bali.
Developing nations are willing to lead, provided they work in partnership with developed nations and receive the required financial and technical support," said the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The two countries with arguably the most at stake, Brazil and the United States, where unfortunately absent from yesterday's meeting. Brazil failed to send any high-level leaders and U.S. Secretary of State Clinton planned to attend but was unable due to a "scheduling conflict."
Even the relatively easy path of protecting forests in an international climate agreement is fraught with difficulty. "Easy" is, of course, relative. Yet focusing too much on those pitfalls, rather than the enormous benefits "mean that it (REDD) is not receiving the attention it needs to be included in a Copenhagen agreement," said Guyanese president Bharrat Jagdeo.
While progress may be slow, the reality that something must be done to save the world's forests is sinking in. Environmental Defense Fund's tropical forest policy director Steve Schwartzman sees the forest for the trees:
So far it's all talk. There is no REDD," he said. But he added that efforts to change that look promising in the coming months leading to Copenhagen. "You can really see some light at the end of the tunnel."