BRASILIA Brazil pledged Monday to cut the rate at which it was destroying its Amazon forest in half over the next decade to help combat global warming.
Setting its first such target after years of global criticism, Brazil will aim to reduce clearing of the world's largest rain forest to an annual 5,850 sq km (2,260 sq miles), by 2018, about half the recent rate.
"This plan improves Brazil's image, we'll have more moral authority internationally," Environment Minister Carlos Minc told reporters after a launching ceremony attended by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Brazil wants to become a major voice in global environmental issues and hopes the plan will help allay criticism it has done too little to fight burning and clearing by loggers, farmers and ranchers.
Amazon destruction makes Brazil one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases because trees release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they're cut down or burned.
The announcement of the new plan, more than a decade after Brazil said it would adopt targets, coincided with the opening of a United Nations climate conference in Poznan, Poland.
Some conservationists said the plan marked an important change in the government's attitude from blaming rich countries to taking action itself. But critics said it was not ambitious enough and had been too slow coming.
"We'll have to wait another decade before seeing a real reduction in deforestation," said Roberto Smeraldi, head of the conservation group Friends of the Earth in Brazil.
"Brazil requires less capital and technology (than rich nations) to reduce emissions; we could do better than this."
Brazil had previously refused to adopt targets until rich countries, which cause most carbon emissions, offered more help to protect tropical forests in developing countries.
Norway gave Brazil an unprecedented vote of confidence this year by pledging $1 billion to a new Amazon Fund over seven years aimed at improving conservation and the enforcement of laws against deforestation.
"We can adopt targets because we now have the instruments to implement them," said Tasso Azevedo, head of the government's Forestry Service, referring to the fund.
Some countries are still hesitant to donate money without a say in how it is spent.
Rich countries should now drop any reluctance to transfer technology to help Brazil reach its targets, Minc said.
Last week the government said Amazon deforestation increased 3.8 percent from a year earlier to nearly 4,633 square miles (12,000 sq km) -- roughly equal to the U.S. state of Connecticut -- as high commodity prices drew farmers and ranchers to slash more trees.
It was the first rise in four years, although well down from a peak of 10,570 square miles (27,379 sq km) in 2004.
Farmers and cattle ranchers moving deeper into the Amazon in search of cheaper land are some of the main culprits.
Brazil's government this year increased policing, impounded farm products from illegally cleared land and cut financing for unregistered properties, stepping up its efforts after figures showed a spike in deforestation late last year.
The plan announced Monday also included measures to boost energy efficiency and renewable fuels, an area in which Brazil is already a world leader.
The government aims to reduce taxes on fuel efficient cars, provide low-cost loans to buy solar panels, and replace one million inefficient refrigerators containing greenhouse gases per year for 10 years.
The use of biofuels, including Brazil's pioneering ethanol derived from sugarcane, is to increase from 20.3 billion liters (18.43 billion quarts) per year to 52.2 billion in ten years.
(Reporting by Raymond Colitt; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Alan Elsner)