By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
COPENHAGEN -- The United States and five other countries today pledged $3.5 billion over the next three years to help developing countries protect trees, a step that observers said could help push the mired climate talks toward a successful conclusion by Friday's deadline.
The United States announced this evening that it would commit $1 billion over the next three years, with Australia, France, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom making up the rest.
While the amount is nothing close to what's required to protect forests worldwide -- an estimated $21 billion to $36 billion is needed by 2015 just to help launch an ambitious forest conservation program -- the funding commitment was welcomed by many forest groups and some developing nations, but with the caveat that there needs to be more.
"The announcement is a major breakthrough," said Republic of Gabon President Omar Bongo in a statement released by the US government. It is "bringing us towards the estimated costs" of starting the massive program.
The pledge was seen as an olive branch from the United States, which has been criticized by many other nations for not enacting climate change legislation and offering too little money to help developing countries adapt to climate change and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
Deliberations on the protection of forests have been a bright spot in the otherwise painfully slow climate talks, with negotiators agreeing on many key areas, although financing and measurement criteria were still being hotly debated today. Because the world loses so much of its tropical forests each year to agriculture and development -- accounting for about 17 percent of global emissions -- enormous effort has been placed on developing a plan to change the economics around cutting trees in poor countries, to make them more valuable to protect than to cut down. The program to do this is called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD.
Deforestation results in greenhouse gas emissions because the carbon stored in trees is released when they are destroyed, and if they're not replaced, there are fewer trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
"I still believe it is possible" to broker a deal, United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer said just before the US announcement. "In that context the next 24 hours are absolutely crucial and need to be productive."
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