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UN climate talks conclude with a whimper, and a new forest policy

After two weeks of frustration and controversy, negotiators departed the United Nations climate talks in Warsaw on Saturday with a landmark agreement on forests and a rough roadmap to the next headline summit in Paris two years hence.

Under the agreement, countries must submit by early 2015 their commitments for action after 2020, when the current commitments expire. Left to be decided at next year’s meeting in Lima, Peru, is what kind of information those plans must include and how they will be evaluated. More immediately, the agreement sets out a mechanism for reporting climate aid from developed countries, which have committed to ramp contributions up to US$100 billion annually by 2020. Negotiators also established a new international body on ‘loss and damage’ in order to help poor countries cope with climate impacts.

But the most significant achievement was an agreement on the basic framework for reducing deforestation, which is responsible for as much as 15% of global carbon emissions. The deal creates a mechanism enabling carbon payments for countries that can document reductions in deforestation and forest degradation.

Formally launched in 2007 in Bali, Indonesia, the forestry talks initially moved quickly. Developed countries saw the opportunity to cheaply offset their emissions, while developing countries in the tropics saw an opportunity to attract money for rural development. Various countries and international institutions quickly embarked on initiatives intended to lay the groundwork for a global programme, but the talks eventually stalled over how to design and fund such a system. Long-term financing for this week’s agreement still needs to be worked out, but Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States kicked things off by collectively committing $280 million to a new BioCarbon Fund.

The agreement on forest conservation was nonetheless overshadowed by a dearth of progress in other areas. For environmental and social activists, who staged a walk-out earlier this week, Warsaw kept the negotiating process alive — but only just. “The lack of urgency shown by governments in this process has been sickening,” Samantha Smith, who heads the WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative out of Oslo, Norway, said in a prepared statement. “This has placed the negotiations towards a global agreement in 2015 at risk.”

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