SINGAPORE While nations bicker over the size of emissions cuts and climate funds, saving forests has turned out to be among the least contentious issues in U.N. climate talks and has achieved the most progress.
The reason, analysts and the world body say, is that curbing deforestation is an easy win for the climate and most countries support a U.N. scheme that aims to reward developing nations for protecting their remaining forests.
That bodes well for major U.N. climate talks that start next Monday in Copenhagen, where the scheme, called reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), is likely to make further progress, though a number of issues need to be resolved.
Investors such as banks and some rich nations are pushing for REDD to be a success, potentially ushering in a carbon trading scheme from 2013 that could be worth billions of dollars a year.
"If anything is going to be delivered at Copenhagen it's going to be REDD," said Paul Winn, forest and climate campaigner for Greenpeace Australia.
"That is because we are looking at a huge global emissions source. There is also the recognition that it is a relatively cheap, easy form of emissions reductions," he told Reuters.
Forests soak up huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide, such as emissions from burning fossil fuels. But the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization says about 13 million hectares (32.5 million acres), or an area roughly the size of England, are destroyed annually.
That means deforestation contributes about 20 percent of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the U.N. climate panel, although a recent study says new calculations show the figure is about 12 percent.
"I think it's a foregone conclusion that REDD will be part of the new agreement. Ironically it's actually the most advanced now," said Tony La Vina, chairman of the REDD negotiations within the U.N. climate talks.
La Vina, of the Philippines, says the scheme still faced hurdles and more talks were needed to seal a broad framework.
But he said he had been surprised that, overall, the issue had been far less contentious than other parts of the climate negotiations, such as emissions targets and funding to help poorer nations adapt to global warming.
Financing for REDD was not a problem, he said.
"Developed countries are at the door with the funding and the capacity-building and support and they just want to make sure certain things are met," he said.
Bigger problems were trying to finalize which institutions would manage the cash, how to ensure developing nations had a say in how to use the money and the extent of the market's role in providing some or eventually all of the funds.
The broad idea of REDD is to reward developing countries with valuable carbon offsets for every tonne of CO2 that is saved from being emitted by protecting forests and rehabilitating them through replanting or sustainable management.
The problem is that such carbon measurement and accounting is complex and time-consuming to put in place, requires laws to be enacted, officials to be trained and investors to be assured that the scheme won't be undermined by corruption.
Ensuring the forests aren't simply cut down later, or that deforestation is displaced to another region or country, is another concern, and analysts say REDD's final technical design will have to take account of these issues.
ROLE OF THE MARKET
More immediately, La Vina said there was still debate in the negotiations over the role of the market.
"My reading is that the debate is not really about control. It's really about offsets," La Vina said, with some developing nations fundamentally opposed to REDD using carbon credits.
La Vina said there had been fights over how to enshrine the legal rights of indigenous people in a formal REDD pact and wording to protect the conversion of natural forests into plantations. But he expected further negotiations in Copenhagen and perhaps afterward would iron out differences.
Another issue is how to get nations up to speed for REDD.
The draft text backs a phased-in approach, allowing poorer countries to build up capacity to implement REDD projects on the ground depending on their circumstances before finally moving into actions that are measured according to results.
Winn of Greenpeace said one idea was to focus initially on setting benchmarks for curbing deforestation, so-called proxies, since this was easier.
"With deforestation proxies, you can do it at a national level, it is reasonably easily measured by satellite monitoring and you don't have get into more difficult areas of working how much carbon each hectare of forest (is locked away)," said Winn.
There was likely to be strong political pressure in Copenhagen to champion REDD, said Andrew Deutz director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy but a formal agreement on REDD might have to wait till all the other pieces of a U.N. climate puzzle fell into place.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)