Conference to set up global forest-protection agency, hopes to boost progress in climate talks

OSLO, Norway (AP) — A multinational deforestation conference will set up an agency Thursday to monitor aid for helping poor nations protect their forests — a major move delegates hope will build momentum for progress at U.N. climate talks this year in Mexico.

The program — called REDD Plus, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation — will encourage rich nations to voluntarily finance forest-protecting projects while coordinating that aid to avoid waste and ensure transparency.

"Forests are worth more dead than alive. Today we commit to change that equation, " Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said in opening the Oslo conference, attended leaders and representatives from 52 countries.

By curbing deforestation, Stoltenberg said, the world can achieve the "largest, fastest and cheapest cuts in global emissions" of greenhouse gases thought to be causing the Earth's average temperatures to rise.

Protecting the forests could account for one-third of emissions cuts needed to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2020 — which scientists say could trigger a climate catastrophe.

A political agreement brokered by President Barack Obama at the last U.N. climate summit in December in Copenhagen, Denmark, called for warming to be kept below that 2-degree mark. But the Copenhagen conference disappointed many in failing to produce a legally binding deal for countries to limit emissions.

Deforestation, from logging, crop-growing and cattle grazing, is thought to account for up to 20 percent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere — as much as is emitted by all the world's cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships combined.

Success in setting up an agency to monitor forest-protection programs could help encourage progress at the next U.N. climate summit at the end of the year in Cancun, Mexico, by creating good will and cooperation between rich and poor nations, Oslo conference delegates said.

Thursday's meeting was the last on REDD Plus planned before Cancun, with work now starting on establishing the agency's infrastructure.

The agency should foster transparency that will "decrease a trust deficit" that has stymied progress in wider climate talks, as wealthy countries express concern about how aid money is used in poor nations, said Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is co-chairing the summit with Stoltenberg.

Deforestation has helped make Indonesia and Brazil the world's third- and fourth-largest carbon emitters, after China and the U.S.

Britain's Prince Charles agreed that transparency was key in brokering a binding global climate agreement.

"In this period of increased stringency, governments will need to know that every dollar made available will be spent wisely in order to avoid any unnecessary duplication," Charles said in a speech at the conference opening.

The new agency would oversee individual agreements between countries to fight deforestation and educate local populations who live off forests — estimated at more than 1 billion worldwide — to do so in a sustainable way.

On Wednesday, Norway pledged $1 billion to a scheme that would pay Indonesia a fixed sum per ton of CO2 emissions reduced through rain forest preservation. Norway has had a similar deal with Brazil since the mid-1990s.

Germany, France, Norway and four other countries have pledged $4 billion to finance REDD Plus itself through 2012 — two-thirds the $6 billion Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc said he hoped would be in place by the Oslo conference.

Attending the one-day conference were heads of state from Denmark, Indonesia, Kenya and five other countries, along with officials from 44 other nations.