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Agriculture Secretary Vilsack: $1 billion for REDD+

Will a deal to stop deforestation be the biggest success at Copenhagen?

Guest blogger Kari Manlove is a Research Associate at American Progress.

What source of greenhouse gas emissions was left out of the Kyoto Protocol and yet contributes roughly the same percentage of global emissions as transportation?

If you guessed deforestation, you nailed it. Opening an event sponsored by Avoided Deforestation Partners today in Copenhagen, Jeff Horowitz cited the statistic that every second of every day, the world loses a football field’s worth of forests.

To close the same event, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack changed the frame and the mood. He announced that the U.S. will give $1 billion over the next three years to early actions in developing countries that develop REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) projects to build their countries’ capacity to slow and eventually halt deforestation. Sec Vilsack said the funding will support ‘ambitious’ REDD+ plans.

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The commitment is part of the US contribution of $10 billion announced before COP15 began to provide ‘fast-track financing’ that supports immediate implementation of climate and energy solutions. It is a meaningful step to begin to provide the international public financing called for by the developing countries.

For quick background, deforestation not only produces emissions but also forests left standing are carbon sinks. REDD+ (versus REDD) is the latest thinking that policy needs to reduce emissions AND conserve (and expand) forests as carbon sinks. (It’s equally important to realize that forests support rural and indigenous communities, house incredible amounts of biodiversity, and store water, so preserving just small amounts of forest goes a long way.)

Sec Vilsack’s announcement followed a series of high-profile speakers and panelists hosted by Avoided Deforestation Partners, including Richard Branson, Jane Goodall, Governor Eduardo Braga (of Amazonas, Brazil), President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana, Robert Zoellick (World Bank), Helen Clark (UNDP), and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway (plus a handful of heads of US environmental groups). A few themes emerged over the hours.

Technology. Avoided deforestation requires no new technology, we have the solutions at our fingertips. As PM Stoltenberg noted, “We all know how not to cut down a tree.” At the same time, it’s nearly impossible to monitor forests without relying on technology, making progress measurable and verifiable. To that end, Google VP Brian McClendon demonstrated a new Google tool under development called Earth Engine.

Earth Engine doesn’t just provide satellite images of forests; it can actually measure what it sees. In other words, it can estimate carbon content and forest density and color-code deforestation by how long it’s been cut. The program is not public but it intends to solve a critical problem of access to this type of information and Google aims to provide access to relevant countries before COP16.

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Return on Investment. PM Stoltenberg discussed Norway’s technique of result-based financing, which allowed them to fund $100 million on Brazilian deforestation in 2008 and probably $150 million for 2009. Norway pays Brazil based on Brazil’s proven performance to conserve their forests and so this number is a reflection of Brazil’s progress.

For Norway, the benefits are two-fold, at least: 1) the government has tangible programs and progress to show its citizens regarding their investment and 2) according to the PM, it is the most cost effective and efficient policy for avoiding emissions. In fact, PM Stoltenberg declared without hesitation that such deforestation policies are “the best investment we have ever made in avoiding global warming.

Job Creation. The government of Norway gave $2.7 million to Jane Goodall’s group to train people on how to keep their forests eligible for REDD financing. And millions of acres of land lays primed for ecological and forest restoration, which creates jobs. Current play in the negotiating process aims to make it more valuable to keep forests in place and alive than burnt and shipped out, so it is also important to remember that this is an issue framed by value and economics.

Scale. Eduardo Braga, Governor of Amazonas, Brazil, touched on the issue of scale. He declared that there’s no more use in pasting the front of the New York Times with stories of successful pilot projects. They’re ready for full financing and to begin implementing systems to bring their success to scale.

Opportunity. Deforestation is on the brink of complete transformation. Avoided deforestation offers one of the most efficient and effective means of preventing further emissions and warming (while preserving rural and indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity), and the COP15 negotiations are on track to seize the moment (though some details are still up in the air, or in brackets). In many ways, the progress made on REDD — behind the scenes and in public announcements such as Sec Vilsack’s — is seen as the most successful achievement of the talks. That is yet to be determined, as Heads of State are just now arriving to close the negotiations. But this should ultimately be one of the final, successful headlines.