A plan to protect the world's biologically rich tropical forests by paying poor nations to protect them was shelved Saturday after world leaders failed to agree on a binding deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Burning trees to clear land for plantations or cattle ranches and logging forests for wood is blamed for about 20 percent of the world's emissions. That's as much carbon dioxide as all the world's cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships combined.
About 32 million acres (13 million hectares) of forests are cut down each year -- an area about the size of England or New York State -- and the emissions generated are comparable to those of China and the United States, according to the Eliasch Review.
Deforestation for logging, cattle grazing and crops has made Indonesia and Brazil the world's third- and fourth-biggest carbon emitters, after China and the United States.
All that made the failure of the forest project even more stinging.
"No treaty means that forest destruction will continue unabated, forest-dependent peoples' rights will not be protected and endangered species will continue down the path to extinction," said Stephen Leonard of the Australian Orangutan Project.
"REDD gets punted along for another year," said Kevin Conrad, executive director of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, which includes many of the 40 tropical countries that would take part in the program.
"It's depressing," he said. "It means I've got to spend another year ... coming to meetings and talking about the same things."
But others said even without the legal framework, the forest program known as REDD -- for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation -- did benefit from the talks. World leaders at the U.N. talks in Copenhagen did agree to spend $30 billion over the next three years and $100 billion by 2020 to help poor nations -- and some of that money could go toward the forest program.
"The failure to conclude a comprehensive agreement on forests is disappointing," said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But if developed countries can deliver the $100 billion per year aimed for in the broader Copenhagen Accord, there is little doubt that a large part of that will go to help preserve forests."
REDD would be financed either by wealthy nations or by a carbon-trading mechanism -- a system in which each country would have an emissions ceiling, allowing those who undershoot it to sell their emissions credits to over-polluters.
Reducing tropical deforestation is one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to reduce emissions, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Two years ago, Norway announced it would commitment $500 million annually to reduce deforestation at a climate summit in Bali.
"Now the United States has shown that it is willing to play in the same league," said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.