Pay us to preserve trees, say developing countries

By Peter Popham

MONTREAL - A bloc of developing countries plans to make a radical proposal this week at the United Nations summit on climate change in Montreal: pay us, and we will preserve our rainforests.

The group of 10 countries, led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, argues that the rest of the world is benefiting from the rainforests' natural wealth without sharing the cost.

Sir Michael Somare, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, said timber was one of the few natural resources available to the countries.

The Rainforest Coalition of countries calls that a recipe for failure to preserve biodiversity, pressure to release the poorest people from poverty and failure to protect the world from the greenhouse effect.

The world and its climate benefits immensely from what remains of the developing world's tropical forests, but the rich countries pay nothing to ensure their safety, the Rainforest Coalition says. "In many forested rural areas, the only real options for economic growth involve the destruction of the natural forests."

A tropical forest acts as a "carbon sink", sucking up the greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels that create the greenhouse effect.

Conversely, cutting or burning the forest adds enormously to the emission of carbon dioxide, whether the trees are burnt or simply rot.

During the 1990s, according to the findings of a United Nations panel, 20 to 25 per cent of global carbon emissions were generated through land-use change, primarily through the degradation of forests. The amount is comparable to emissions from burning fossil fuels in the United States, the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Already under the Kyoto protocol, billions of dollars are changing hands annually in the form of "carbon offsets". The protocol requires countries progressively to lower their gas emissions. Industrialised countries that have trouble reaching emission targets can offset their excess emissions by buying credits from countries that are doing better.

Until now, the countries of the developing world where the tropical forests are concentrated have been excluded from this scheme - as they are also excluded from the obligation to cut emissions, which apply only to the wealthy industrialised countries.

The Rainforest Coalition is now asking to be taken into the scheme. A heavily polluting country in Europe will buy carbon credits from developing countries that can prove - and there are two independent boards that will verify it - that they have managed to keep their "carbon sinks" intact. That way, for the first time, the developing countries will have a financial incentive to control logging.

"The objective," said Somare, "is to align the interests of rainforested developing nations with industrial nations - with the latter offering markets for carbon off-sets and forest products. If we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we should be compensated for these reductions."

The next obvious opportunity for changing the Kyoto protocol to bring the rainforest countries on board is 2012. But PNG argues the change needs to happen now.


* Under Kyoto, about 40 developed countries agree to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-12. Developing nations reject the goals because their energy use is relatively low.

* The US plans to cut the amount of gases it emits per dollar of economic output by 18 per cent before 2012. Some poor nations might accept similar goals, which are less strict than Kyoto caps.

* Big industrial sources of greenhouse gases could adopt international emissions standards.

* Developing nations could get goals for emissions, above current levels, and sell any "surplus" differences on an international market.

* The poorest nations would get no emission targets. Rich nations would be given stricter cuts.


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