Collective sigh of relief over Cancun agreement to protect tropical forests

“I would say there was a collective sigh of relief with the end result,” said Doug Morton, a scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, speaking of the significant progress on a new deal to protect forests in tropical countries, struck at the 2010 climate talks in Cancun, which ended last Friday.

Morton, who uses Landsat images to study Earth’s forests, was in Cancun to present his research on observing land use changes with satellites, which he says are important tools for monitoring countries’ progress on the new agreement.

Doug Morton: Satellite images vital to climate negotiations

The new deforestation agreement, called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), has now has a formalized structure to pay countries to protect their tropical forests. A halt to clearing, burning, and logging tropical forests could help reduce global greenhouse emissions.

The agreement formalizes the outline of how REDD will be put into action. It also includes safeguards for the people whose livelihoods may be affected by REDD. There are still many details to be worked out, Morton said. For example, negotiators have to agree on a way to measure, report, and verify that they’ve slowed the rate of deforestation and encouraged the regrowth of forests.

Morton told me that he left Cancun late Friday night, as negotiations continued in an all-night session. Before relief, there was anxiety, Morton said. REDD has been in the works for several years, and had been discussed during the 2009 U.N. Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. Support for targeting emissions in tropical forests had grown.

First week of climate talks ends with forests on the table

Cancun was the place and the time to make it happen, he said.

Based on the research of Morton and others, tropical forests are known store a huge amount of carbon. This work suggests that deforestation is responsible for 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. These emissions are contributing to global warming.

Now, Morton said, he is optimistic. He pointed to the success of a financial agreement between Norway and Brazil, which is along the lines of REDD.  Norway agreed to give Brazil as much as $1 billion over 5 years to reduce deforestation. On December 1, during the Cancun meeting, Brazil announced that deforestation in the country had dropped to its lowest level in 22 years.

Supporters of the new agreement hope that REDD will achieve similar results in tropical forests around the world.

December 13, 2010

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