New emphasis on protecting old forests in Copenhagen

David MoultonHere at the Copenhagen Summit the building is a maze of forest of data, side events, booths and actual negotiations over...forests. Forests are part of solving the climate crisis — through both storing carbon and helping ecosystems and communities adapt in a changing world.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has spent nearly a week here extolling the virtues of a strong climate bill for the rural economy. Secretary Salazar announced from here last week that new USGS estimates place the potential of our land — both forested and non-forested — to store carbon at 30% of the US' annual carbon emissions. Forests in the US already store roughly 14% annually. (I discussed this topic more in depth in a previous blog post, found here.)

On the international stage, a new REDD policy, "REDD+", is taking shape that would better recognize broader efforts to minimize climate's impacts, such as sustainable forest management, biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples. At a side event sponsored by the United States, Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institute extolled the power of carbon mapping to assist countries in tracking land use change, carbon stocks and degradation. His team uses ground plot measurements, aircraft 3-d mapping, and satellites to get details down to a tenth of a hectare over any area the size of Denmark.

At the same event, Rick Ridgeway, VP of Patagonia's Environmental Initiatives, laid out the opportunity for the United States to reconnect our land through a web of preserved and acquired land to allow "freedom to roam" for some our most iconic species. Such large landscapes restore not just species resilience, but water, fire resistance and natural carbon storage.

In the next few days, the fate of the world's wildlands will be affected by whatever agreements are made at this conference. Our land is already under great stress from a warming climate, and when lands are degraded whole communities are degraded as well.

The United States is taking its knocks in Denmark. The lack of a Senate bill has made our negotiators very cautious. Today, the US received the "Fossil of the Day" award at a raucous ceremony hosted by the activist community for failing to push for the emissions targets and long-term financing of REDD, adaptation and technology that the world needs. Simultaneously, on a panel in the main hall, author Tom Friedman noted that the greatest obstacle to long-term sustainability for our planet is the United States, which has yet to pass legislation that would increase the value of carbon saved and the price of carbon emitted. If the U.S. leads, says Friedman, China and India will follow.

The opening ceremonies concluded tonight with a speech by Wangari Maathai, Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Green Belt movement. Although she spoke to a packed hall, the entire multi-cavernous Bella Center seemed to stop in its tracks, transfixed to TV monitors, to receive the words of this powerful messenger as she exhorted the world to make forests a crucial part of the climate solution.

We will know soon whether this process is moving forward towards a binding international agreement, and whether that agreement is strong enough to give hope to the world that we can head off the worst effects of global warming by 2050. But there is no question that in the two years since the UN Bali conference, the role of forests has grown in climate negotiations and could emerge as a key element in a global strategy to curb emissions and build resistance to warming. The world is beginning to recognize that when we protect the health of our natural ecosystems, we protect all human health.

This article also appears on the National Journal's Copenhagen Insider blog.