The New York Times breathlessly reported on Wednesday that a treaty on REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – had all but been signed.


The reality, however, is much more complex.

A look at the state of discussions on REDD illuminates the dire state of climate negotiations at COP15. With less than 72 hours before the close of this conference, resolution on issues of emissions targets and financing is critical if there is to be an agreement – on REDD or on a comprehensive climate change treaty.

Without resolution on the big issues of emissions targets and finance, several people close to the negotiations on REDD have told me, there may not be an agreement on deforestation. And without agreement on those two big-ticket items, it’s difficult to see a path forward on a comprehensive treat at COP15.

First, the good news on REDD. Many important safeguards are now included. Moreover, they are not bracketed; meaning that consensus within the delegate-level negotiations has been reached. The text includes reference to the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples and includes safeguards against the conversion of forest areas. Conservation groups have pushed for language explicitly prohibiting conversion of forests to “plantations.” But those I spoke with indicate that the protections, as written, go a long way in preventing the practice.

Forest conservation and indigenous rights organizations are applauding these breakthroughs Yet, two fundamental issues remain unresolved within the draft: specific target dates and goals for reducing and, then, eliminating deforestation and how these efforts will be financed.

The draft, however, is completely silent on these issues and unless they are agreed upon at the ministerial level, that is, among the chief negotiators for each country, REDD will not protect indigenous people nor prevent forest conversions, much less provide billions of dollars in development aid to poor and developing countries.

“For the G77 countries it’s difficult to have a goal for eliminating deforestation without financial commitments from wealthy countries,” Sean Cadman of The Wilderness Society told me, “And without commitments to overall emissions reduction targets and financing, REDD might not make it.”

And, there’s the rub. While the advisory group on REDD has made important breakthroughs, the future of deforestation regulations – protections on forest conversions to plantations and for indigenous communities – rests on whether or not there’s resolution on the big ticket items of emissions targets and finance, which have been the main stumbling blocks for months.

If the last twelve hours are any indication, there remains a long road to hoe for any agreement on those issues. The COP15 talks remain in jeopardy and, by extension, so, too, is any agreement on REDD.

Late on Tuesday evening a session of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) was brought to a halt – the cause: the U.S. delegation’s refusal to commit to greater emissions reduction targets and on finance.

In a statement released on Wednesday morning Damon Moglen of Greenpeace USA said: “The US, the world’s richest country with the largest historical emissions is holding these talks hostage. If Obama doesn’t put new targets and long term finance on the table this week, he will be the leader remembered for causing a breakdown in Copenhagen and guaranteeing climate chaos.”

I spoke with a delegate, who attended the LCA discussion and who wished to remain anonymous, about what happened during the late night talks. He said that Jonathan Pershing, the State Department’s envoy on climate change, approached the chair of the LCA and held a private conversation. Clearly agitated with the draft text before the working group, Pershing then left the room, stalling negotiations for several crucial hours.

Over the past several days, the U.S. delegation has been turning up the heat on China to come forward with greater emissions targets. It seems that the U.S. is setting them up as the fall guy if summit talks collapse.

Meanwhile, negotiations in the Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol, the other major negotiating track, has stalled as well because Canada, Japan, and Australia are seeking to water down commitments on emissions cuts.

“An enormous amount of work has gone into the REDD document to make something that is clean, clear, and implementable,” Cadman says, “That will come to an absolute halt if there is no LCA agreement.”

As Margaret Swink of the Rainforest Action Network notes: “nothing’s decided until everything is decided.”

Such is the tangled web of COP15 negotiations.