Thousands of experts gathered Monday in Bali, Indonesia, for two weeks of talks about climate change.
The current international treaty on climate, the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2012, and the meeting is supposed to come up with new ways to curb global warming.
One idea is to pay developing countries to stop cutting down their forests. When trees burn or decompose, they send carbon up into the atmosphere and that warms the planet. Negotiators in Bali will be pressing hard for a scheme they call "reduced deforestation."
The idea of paying poor countries not to cut down their forests didn't make it into the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Critics said rich countries shouldn't be able to buy "carbon indulgences" from poor countries.
But now there's a carbon market. Companies that need to cut their emissions can buy the right to pollute by subsidizing things like wind turbines or methane traps at pig farms. But they can't buy trees.
Countries with forests want to change that. People like Tasso Azevedo, head of Brazil's forest service.
"Large companies that need large quantities of carbon offsets to neutralize their emissions, they don't have many options today for large quantities. So, this will be an interesting opportunity," Azevedo said.
Interesting to the tune of billions of dollars for Brazil. That's how much tracts of Amazon forest could be worth in the carbon market.
Another group looking to get trees into the carbon market is the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. It's run by Kevin Conrad. He's from Papua New Guinea, and he went to Washington, D.C., recently to support reduced deforestation, but he warned it won't come cheaply.
"We have to keep in mind the forests are ours, and they are sovereign assets, and they are deriving a lot of revenue for our communities today," Conrad said. "And we are not going to put them in a museum for everyone, unless we understand the revenue streams are going to be sufficient and sustainable and predictable, and we can grow our economies."
Predictability is also what the potential buyers of these forest offsets want, though it may be another kind of predictability.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a major U.S. utility, is interested in the idea of carbon offsets for forests. But Nancy McFadden, senior vice president for PG&E public affairs, said those forests would have to stay saved.
"The key for us, with respect to carbon trading and offset projects, is that they have to be verifiable. They have to be real, and they have to be long-lasting.
Indonesia Favors Plan
Critics of dollars-for-forests said that may be hard to do. If someone gets carbon credits for saving one patch of forest only to push timber companies to another patch, the atmosphere won't improve.
And how long does a forest have to be saved to earn carbon credits? And what happens if a corrupt local official breaks out the chainsaws?
The U.S. government has been cool to the idea of reduced deforestation. But Indonesia, with some of the biggest tropical forests on the planet, appears to like it, said climate analyst Annie Petsonk of Environmental Defense.
"They may steal a march on the United States by taking a lead and saying, 'We're willing to go forward with programs to cap and cut our greenhouse emissions from deforestation if you in the industrialized world open your carbon markets,'" she said.
Getting forests into a new carbon market may get a big boost at Bali in part because everything else on the table is so controversial — for example, getting the U.S., China and India to join in any new climate deal.
So, negotiators may grease the skids for the forest scheme, so they'll have something to show for their two weeks in Bali.