The watchword in the halls of this year’s UN climate summit is “balanced package.” It’s the oblique phrase referring to what might be possible as a final agreement at this year’s meeting, at least to those who don’t have unreasonable expectations on what can be achieved. What many hope can be achieved is not a full-blown climate treaty but rather a package of discrete agreements — what we’ve joined the United Nations Foundation and others in calling “building blocks” — that can advance an ambitious agenda on mitigation and adaptation in the absence of a complete climate treaty.

The most substantive and important part of that balanced package which many hope will come through is an agreement on forestry, known here as the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program, or REDD. Last year in Copenhagen parties came extremely close to finalizing a deal on REDD and this year they appear even closer. According to Doug Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been following this track closely through the night, “We were on the five-yard line, and now it’s something like the four-. But no touchdown yet.”

The stakes here are high. Globally, emissions from deforestation are equal to emissions from the entire transportation sector. And, as opposed to other areas of mitigation, there has been considerable progress in the last decade. A recent U.N. study reported that deforestation had slowed to 5.2 million hectares a year in the last decade, down from 8.3 million a year in the 1990s. And some countries like Indonesia — where tropical forests and peat land combine for added sequestration potential — did even better reducing their yearly loss to 0.5 million hectares per year since 2000, down from 1.9 million in the previous decade. Critically, mitigation of emissions through avoided deforestation greatly improves our ability to protect habitats and slow biodiversity loss.

One reason a REDD agreement is so close today is because a substantive series of bilateral and multilateral arrangements between donor and recipient countries has already emerged.  Norway has pledged $1 billion for programs in Brazil, Indonesia and Guyana, which are already underway, and the U.S. has pledged $1 billion as part of any financial packages which are jump-starting now. Combined with other country commitments, the global total for current forestry financing even without a global agreement approaches $5 billion.

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But while significant, this funding is not yet sufficient to hit the goal that CAP and other groups have endorsed for the end of the decade: cutting deforestation in half by 2020.  In a Center for American Progress — Alliance for Climate Protection report released this week on near term international climate finance, we estimate that to hit the 2020 target, the 2015 goal should be to reduce deforestation 20 percent and reforest approximately 55 million hectares of land. We estimate that the initial cost for such a program would be approximately $12 billion per year by 2015. More funding is needed and, in addition, more coherence is needed for making sure available funds get to recipient countries in a timely manner and projects achieve the desired results.

These issues were prevalent in discussions throughout the week and were highlighted at back-to-back events on Wednesday sponsored first by the Obama administration in the U.S. Center and, later in the day, at a high-level summit organized by Avoided Deforestation Partners.

The U.S. event features four key players in the administration’s team who are moving the first part of the $1 billion in forestry funding out the door to projects. Joe Aldy, Special Assistant to the President on Energy and Environment, was joined by Maura O’Neill, Senior Counselor to the Administrator at USAID, Billy Pizer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy at Treasury, and Patrick Smith, leader of USAID’s climate change team.

O’Neill, who Skyped into the meeting from South Africa, laid out in some detail the rationale for U.S. spending so far with a focus on three areas: architecture, readiness, and demonstration. While there has been a lot of activity in the forest sector globally there is still a surprising lack of coherence among programs. In that light the U.S. government is not just writing checks but actively shaping projects with partners that can be quickly tested and scaled up. Through programs like the newly announced “SilvaCarbon,” USAID is working with U.S. scientific agencies to create tailored monitoring and measurement instruments that can both assess need and demonstrate success.

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Pizer walked the audience through the rationale for why the U.S. was directing most of its REDD funding through multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The bottom line: leverage. Every dollar the U.S. puts through the GEF leverages five, and every dollar through the Banks’ Climate Investment Fund leverages three to four. Echoing O’Neill, Pizer argued that using the multilateral development approach also increases coherence in distribution of funds across parties and the chance to test innovative approaches to monitoring and evaluation. (While the event is not yet online, you can check for updates here.)

White House aid Joe Aldy commented in the session that the “President has a personal commitment to forestry issues,” and he continued that message later in the day when he appeared on a panel at the Avoided Deforestation Partners summit, “Advancing REDD+: New Pathways and Partnerships.”

The plenary panel for the event, following an address by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, featured Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway; President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana; Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who will head a new Indonesian REDD agency; financier and Founder of the Open Society Foundations, George Soros; and Aldy.

Most of the session covered familiar ground for those who have followed this issue. Stoltenberg opened with a proclamation that his country’s motivation for providing funding for forestry projects as opposed to other areas of mitigation is because it is the “largest, cheapest, and fastest way to reduce CO2,” and that the co-benefits for protecting biodiversity were substantial. Soros discussed the importance of peat lands and how stopping their destruction needed to be a top priority, given the hundreds of years of accumulated carbon that is released when they are lost.

But President Jagdeo threw down the gauntlet and bluntly challenged the system that is being used to funnel money from donor countries like Norway to his country through the multilateral development banks.

As was demonstrated in the earlier session in the U.S. Center, one of the reasons for using such institutions to funnel this money is to harmonize a system of measuring success of projects. But Jagdeo claimed that while he had absolutely no problem with that, the other hurdles in the multilateral bank system made it more difficult to get funds after reductions in emissions had been delivered. This made it more tempting, he said, to simply invest more effort in farming rice and s
ugar and sell it on the open market without any restrictions than to cooperate on REDD.

All parties agreed that this system needed to be streamlined, and it needed to be done quickly to allow finance to move to places where it could most effectively be used. More telling, Jagdeo argued, was the need to shore up the political capital he and other leaders of developing countries were expending when employing REDD as a sustainable development strategy, rather than turning to more destructive alternatives.

At first glance, such concerns might lend themselves to other criticisms coming from left-of-center NGOs here who have been demanding a rejection of the current REDD agreement. Their core argument, which has been repeated in the negotiating sessions most prominently by the Bolivian negotiators, is that any system that includes market mechanisms to leverage more capital will of necessity corrupt the system. At this point the Bolivians remain the leading opponents to the current REDD agreement, suggesting they are considering their prerogative to derail a final agreement as they did last year in Copenhagen with four other countries. Tellingly, their lead negotiators refused to discuss substantive issues at a morning press conference promising instead for more later in the day so as not to interrupt the still in-process negotiations.

But if the fight here over REDD is really between the capitalist and anti-capitalist forces, the former side couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador than World Bank President Robert Zoellick. Throughout the meeting he’s been pushing hard on a REDD agreement, primarily as a vehicle to fund impoverished programs to preserve biodiversity. Closing out the Wednesday summit with Stoltenberg and Jagdeo, Zoellick put it bluntly: “We don’t want silent forests.”

There are of course many other ways an agreement could come off the tracks. Reports are that U.S. negotiators are employing a very hard line on proposals measuring, reporting, and verifying emission reductions, which could also impede proceeding with a balanced package. Nonetheless, progress on a global REDD agreement may be decide in the next few hours.  Check back here for updates.