Forests Get Attention at Copenhagen

With only two more days left in the COP15 schedule, participants, protesters and observers from all over the globe are worried that nothing substantive will be decided. Yvo De Boer arrived at the talks yesterday with a life-preserver in tow, sending a stark signal to those who still may not get it: we are in a state of emergency, and something has to change.

One piece of good news and possible consensus is the agreement on REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.) Under this program, countries would be compensated for preserving natural landscapes that, if not preserved, would result in even more emissions. Rainforest destruction is now estimated to account for about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and peat bogs also act as large carbon sinks. The idea is that poor countries would be paid for preserving these carbon-holding landscapes, and more developed countries could gain carbon credits. (For example, a factory in the U.S. could earn the right to more emissions by investing in land preservation programs overseas.)

Some issues have yet to be resolved, like agreement on what exactly constitutes a "forest," and what exactly defines the land rights of indigenous people. Concern has also been voiced that oceans, which store vast amounts of carbon and are approaching dangerous levels of acidification, are exempt from the plan. But for now, REDD seems like a likely triumph in an otherwise inconclusive meeting.

The Environmental Grantmakers Association held a conference call today, live from Copenhagen. On the call, there was consensus that REDD is one of the quickest, easiest, and least expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If passed as expected, REDD would mark a step forward from Kyoto, (which the United States under the Bush administration infamously refused to sign.) The focus under Kyoto was emissions reduction, with no compensation given for preserving landscapes that naturally store carbon.

Shaun Paul, Executive Director of the EcoLogic Development Fund, participated in the call. Paul said because of governmental resistance to broad environmental legislation, now is the time to prove, through pilot projects, that sustainability works. Paul emphasized that small grants and philanthropy are particularly important and influential now, and through the projects they make possible could be the last push governments need to feel secure in signing climate legislation.

Sarah Christiansen of the Solidago Foundation, another participant on the call, said one positive outcome of Copenhagen has been the tremendous outpouring of grassroots support. Christiansen said that despite media attention to violent protest, overall protesters have been peaceful, and grassroots activists from all economic and cultural backgrounds have bonded over a common cause.

Rachel Leon of EGA called COP15 an "unprecedented event."

If nothing concrete aside from REDD comes out of Copenhagen, at least we can say that voices were heard, frustrations released and connections made for future work. The problem is, our window of future opportunity grows smaller by the minute.