COPENHAGEN — Negotiators have all but completed a sweeping deal that would compensate countries for preserving forests, and in some cases, other natural landscapes such as peat soils, swamps and fields that play a crucial role in curbing climate change.
Environmental groups have long advocated such a compensation program because forests efficiently absorb carbon dioxide, the primary heat-trapping gas linked to global warming. Rain forest destruction, which releases the carbon dioxide stored in trees, is estimated to account for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
The agreement for the program, if signed as expected, may turn out to be the most significant achievement to come out of the Copenhagen climate talks, providing a system through which countries can be paid for conserving disappearing natural assets based on their contribution to reducing emissions.
A final draft of the agreement for the compensation program, called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation or REDD, is to be given today to ministers of the nearly 200 countries gathered in Copenhagen to hammer out a framework for a global climate treaty. Negotiators and other participants said that though some details remained to be worked out, all major points of disagreement - how to address the rights of indigenous people living on forest land and what is defined as forest, for example -- had been resolved through compromise.
A final agreement on the program may not be announced until the end of the week, when President Barack Obama and other world leaders arrive - in part because there has been so little progress on other issues at the climate summit, sponsored by the United Nations.
"It is likely to be the most concrete thing that comes out of Copenhagen - and it is a very big thing," Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund.
For poorer countries, the payments will provide a much-needed new income stream. For richer nations, the lure of the program is not cash but carbon credits that can be used to cancel out, in part, their industrial emissions under a carbon trading system, like the cap-and-trade plan currently under consideration by Congress.
Forests "have become a pot of money or a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Peg Putt, a consultant to the Wilderness Society. "Either way, there's the prospect of financial benefit now, as opposed to just being told, 'Do the right thing,' like it was two years ago."
The new plan represents an important shift from earlier U.N. climate programs, such asthe 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which countries committed to curbing their industrial emissions but got no credit for reducing emissions through changes in land use.
The agreement is also being closely watched in the U.S. Congress, where climate legislation passed the House in June and is currently stalled in the Senate.
Under the cap-and-trade system preferred by Democratic leaders and the Obama administration, companies that cannot meet their greenhouse gas pollution limit could buy extra permits by investing in carbon-reduction programs abroad. Plans to preserve forests under REDD would presumably qualify.
The forest program "offers the opportunities for U.S. companies to reduce emissions at lower cost, which is very important politically," Krupp said.
Under the final draft of agreement, other habitats that absorb carbon dioxide - like peat bogs, which store large amounts of carbon dioxide in their soil - could be eligible for payments. This prospect has environmentalists scrambling to calculate the carbon storage capacity of such resources.
"Why is everyone thinking about forest and peat land while overlooking oceans, the biggest carbon store on the planet?" asked Dan Lafolley, marine vice chairman for the World Commission on Protected Areas of the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Even if the ministers pass the agreement, as it is predicted they will, it will take some time before the money starts flowing. Many details remain to be worked out, including the exact level of emissions reduction the REDD program should aim for and by what date, and what system should be used to measure the carbon storage of various habitats.