STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Most of the world's industrial nations have embarked on a huge experiment - they're trying to use less coal and less oil and less natural gas. Those fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide, which warms the atmosphere and changes the Earth's climate. But a lot of carbon dioxide actually comes from forests when they're cut down and burned to make way for crops or pasture. So now there is a movement to get countries with big forests to slow the rate of cutting by paying them to do it.
Here's NPR's Christopher Joyce.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: When you burn a forest to make room for, say, a soybean field or a cattle pasture, the carbon in those trees goes up into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That's the leading greenhouse gas. In fact, burning forests creates a huge pulse of CO2. Here's Peter Frumhoff with the advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Mr. PETER FRUMHOFF (Chair, Union of Concerned Scientists): Every year in tropical countries, we lose about an area of forest about the size of New York state. Some total of those clearings are that it contributes about 20 percent of the total emissions of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere that cause global warming.
JOYCE: Yes, that's right. About one-fifth of all greenhouse gases comes from deforestation. Now, the international treaty that limits greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol, doesn't do anything directly about deforestation. It's aimed at factories and power plants in industrialized countries.
So here's the new idea, first floated by developing countries: Why not pay us to slow down our deforestation? You can count up the carbon that's kept earthbound as a result and it can be sold as a carbon credit to anyone who wants to offset their own carbon dioxide emissions. It's a controversial idea and the subject of intense debate recently in Bonn, Germany, home base for the United Nations climate bureaucracy. As is the norm for climate meetings, Green Peace activists were there with banners and rock and roll and activists Stephanie Thunmoore(ph) to urge the delegates off.
Ms. STEPHANIE THUNMOORE (Activist): We've selected a few song titles with messages in them such as, "That Don't Impress Me Much." And we're playing them constantly to let delegates know and ask them to change your tunes, please. Save the climate.
JOYCE: But there hasn't been much progress, up until now anyway. One problem has been how to tell how much carbon goes in and out of a forest. Martin Enderlin was at the Bonn meeting. He's with the carbon trading company called EcoSecurities.
Mr. MARTIN ENDERLIN (EcoSecurities): Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electricity power plant, this is something which is fairly easy to be measured. As soon as you get to these forests and avoid the deforestation, you can have difficulties to measure what are the emissions because even they can absorb CO2, but in other conditions, they actually can emit.
JOYCE: There are other obstacles. If a company pays, say the Indonesian government, to avoid deforestation in some remote tropical forest, how will they know the forest won't get cut down 20 years later? Or if one tract of forest is saved, farmers could just go cut another one somewhere else, meaning no real carbon savings for the atmosphere.
But Bernard Slavier(ph), a forestry expert with the Austrian research group called UNAM(ph) says those arguments don't wash anymore. For one thing, satellites can now see everywhere.
Mr. BERNARD SLAVIER (Forestry expert, UNAM): So that you could actually not only detect deforestation but detect it while it happens so you could do something against it. The other thing is we've learned more about how to convert information on tree diameter and the carbon stored in the trees.
JOYCE: Tropical countries like the idea of getting paid for the carbon content of their forests. One group that has emerged to represent these countries is the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. It's led by Kevin Conrad, a young business school graduate born and raised in Papua New Guinea.
Mr. KEVIN CONRAD (Director, Coalition for Rainforest Nations): What was driving deforestation was a global market for cows, okay, or a global market for coffee. Okay? And then, what was being used to fight against that was some moral obligation that there was biodiversity there that had some value but no one was really valuing it. Nobody could compete head to head with the money a country was making elsewhere. So carbon was the first time we had a chance - a global market that could compete head to head with these other markets.
JOYCE: In essence, forests would be viewed as carbon storehouses. Climate negotiators are still arguing over how to make all this work. Should there be an open carbon market where credits for saving forests are bought and sold like pork bellies, or an international bank funded by wealthy nations to pay for saved forests. For its part, the U.S. government is withholding its opinion, a position some environmental groups find frustrating. But Peter Frumhoff from the Union of Concerned Scientists says, a forestry scheme won't work if it appears to be one-sided.
Mr. FRUMHOFF: It needs to be done in a way that's not (unintelligible) stepping up to them and saying you must, for reasons of things that we're concerned about, slow your deforestation.
JOYCE: Supporters of this avoided deforestation idea also say it could move developing countries from spectators in the effort to slow climate change to first-string players.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.