SHANGHAI -- Seven years after Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea called on the world to combat climate change by saving vanishing forests in the tropics, the marriage between emissions trading and forest protection has grown into something more than wedding vows, but it is still far away from generating a baby.\ That marriage was blessed by an international mechanism called REDD, short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Through REDD, developed countries pay developing countries for keeping trees standing. While global negotiators are still discussing how to do this, some steps have already been taken on the ground.
In Asia, where forests are disappearing faster than in many other parts of the world, Western donors and international organizations have devoted millions of dollars and a lot of planning to prepare nations for the emerging mechanism. Financial specialists have also begun developing REDD pilot projects to experiment with forest carbon trading. The goal is to cash in on carbon dioxide that trees store up and, at the same time, to slow down the forest destruction in the region.
As big as this goal may be, the challenges in developing REDD projects that work are even bigger. Many pilot projects have generated nothing but a scar on the mechanism's reputation. Some people also question whether money generated from selling carbon credits could really flow across a corruption-prone region and wind up in the hands of the right people: villagers who are protecting the forests.
REDD supporters are scrambling to move faster. They need to build villagers' trust in the mechanism, and they think the survival of Asia's remaining forests may well depend on their efforts along with the future habitability of the region.
With larger swaths of forests being cut down in recent years, Asian countries are seeing less wildlife, losing groundwater and discovering more soil erosion. Human life is at risk, too, as thinned mangrove forests failed to protect South Asia from a tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in 2004.
The theory has been that trees can lock climate-harmful carbon dioxide into centuries-long storage. But the reality has often been that the burning of forests to make way for agriculture ends their ability to absorb carbon. The burning also produces an immediate flow of carbon back to the air. As a result, forests now emit more greenhouse gas than all of the world's vehicles combined, with more than half that coming from Asia.
Trying to break the cycle of destruction
That leads to an urgent call to save Asia's forests. Already, some nations and international alliances have opened their wallets to do so, but "even if the money is very well spent, it is still not sufficient to bring the changes that are needed," said Thomas Enters, an expert at the U.N. Environment Programme. He has spent 19 years of his career in forest management in Asia and the Pacific.
But as industrialized countries committed to reduce emissions in a global climate treaty in 1997, forest protectors saw another solution: If rich nations need to meet emission reduction targets, why don't they do so by paying poorer nations to protect their forests? The idea was proposed in a United Nations conference in 2005, then got accepted in principle two years later.
How to do this on a global stage is still under negotiation, but nations like Japan have already moved ahead to link REDD with their own carbon offset programs. Australia and California, two emerging carbon markets, are also considering ways to let their emitters comply with their emission rules by buying some carbon credits generated from REDD.
Outside these emerging regulated markets, interest in REDD projects is also growing.
"In voluntary markets, buyers or investors are really looking for the story behind a project," said Naomi Swickard, manager at Verified Carbon Standard, a U.S.-based firm that audits environmental benefits of emissions reduction projects. She added that sponsoring REDD projects tells good stories. For example a hotel chain can show its effort to mitigate travelers' carbon footprint by investing in the protection of nearby rainforests.