UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations launched a program on Wednesday that it hopes could be the foundation for a system in which rich countries would pay poor ones to slow climate change by protecting and planting forests.
The new program, called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Program, or UN-REDD, will assist nine developing countries, including Bolivia, Indonesia and Zambia, in establishing systems to monitor, assess and report forest cover.
“Forests are worth more alive than dead ... and their ecosystem services and benefits are worth billions if not trillions of dollars if only we capture these in economic models,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program.
Clearing forests for timber and farmland in developing nations emits nearly 20 percent of the greenhouse gases blamed for climate change, according to the U.N.’s climate science panel. Trees store heat-trapping carbon dioxide as they grow and release it when they rot or are burned.
Tropical countries are pushing to include UN-REDD in the successor to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Delegates representing countries around the globe are scheduled to meet in Copenhagen at the end of next year in hopes of hammering out a successor to the pact, which expires in 2012.
Under such a plan, the tropical countries would generate tradable carbon credits by saving and planting trees. Indonesia, for example, has the potential to be compensated $1 billion a year if its deforestation rate was reduced to 1 million hectares annually, the U.N. estimated.
Presumably, rich countries would buy the credits to meet their own emission limits, like the way European Union countries have invested in credits representing emissions cuts generated by clean energy projects in poor countries.
Not everyone agrees such a program would be a good idea. Barry Gardiner, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s special envoy for forests, said in an interview earlier this month that the model of avoided deforestation is flawed and risks alienating voters in rich countries.
Gardiner proposed instead that rich countries should simply make payments to tropical nations based on the size of existing forests. If countries continued to log or burn they could be expelled from the scheme.
Almost all nations at a round of fractious U.N. climate treaty talks in Ghana last month expressed support for including ways to avoid deforestation in a new U.N. pact.
Norway, which is looking for ways to offset carbon dioxide emissions from its growing natural gas export business, donated $35 million to finance the initial phase of UN-REDD.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner, editing by Cynthia Osterman)
Additional reporting by Gerard Wynn in London