The world is meeting in Montreal to discuss climate change and an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Despite the news that CO2 levels are at their highest for 650,000 years, that the rate of sea-level rise has doubled in the last 150 years, that Greenland's glaciers are melting, increasing the danger of a catastrophic tipping point, nobody expects much from the talks. US intransigence has sabotaged them before they have even begun - perhaps fatally.
Still, there is one interesting sign so far: a proposal by the Rainforest Coalition of developing countries that the rich world pay them to preserve their rainforests as carbon sinks. My first reaction to this was that while I liked the proposal for all sorts of reasons, looked at from a carbon accounting point of view, it was bullshit - the forests were already there, the carbon already locked away in trees. Allowing the rich world to gain credit for it would be giving them a free lunch for doing nothing (of course, many made the same argument about including land-use changes and forest sinks in the first place). However, as Joseph Stiglitz points out, it plugs a hole in the Protocol: countries could be paid for planting new forests, but not for not cutting them down. Given the large contribution of land-use changes to global carbon emissions over the last decade - approximately 25% of the total, or about the same amount as America's contribution - there's no question that reducing deforestation would be a real reduction in emissions and help towards limiting global warming.
Including restraining from deforestation would require a substantial rejig of the Protocol's rules. But that's exactly what's under discussion for the Second Commitment Period anyway. An easy mechanism would be to calculate the average rate of deforestation in the past decade, and assign it to poorer nations as tradable carbon credits. Every tree they chop down would get taken out of this, and so it would provide a solid incentive for preservation. Provided it is matched by an increase in the reduction expected from first world nations, then there won't be a free lunch, and nations will still have to make real reductions or changes overall.