LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Gabon is aiming for an annual revenue boost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year by using its forests to reap carbon credits, a top official said, but any windfall will depend on this month's Copenhagen climate talks.
Three quarters covered by rainforests and part of the lush Congo Basin region, the central African nation has long exported oil but its reserves are dwindling and newly-elected President Ali Ben Bongo is under pressure to seek new sources of revenue.
Forests soak up huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide and a system to reward poor countries for protecting their forests is seen as a possible outcome from the December 7-18 talks to find a successor to the Kyoto protocol.
But the scope of any scheme is still disputed, in particular over how much recognition should be given to efforts to conserve forests and manage them in a sustainable way.
"At some point, if we are going to deal with climate change, you have to put the forests and the money in some sort of calculation," Lee White, Gabon's national parks chief and an adviser to Ben Bongo on environment issues, told Reuters.
Gabon has already cancelled one million hectares of logging contracts as part of efforts to impose order in the sector.
White said in an interview that independent data showed forest management policies since 2001 have helped offset the impact of emissions.
"This year, Gabon's reduction in carbon emmissions was 20 million tonnes. We could get to 50 million tonnes in five years...the forest carbon market should reward Gabon for this," said White, who helped convince Ben Bongo's long-ruling father Omar to create national parks in Gabon from 2002 onwards.
Assuming carbon prices between $5 and $10 per tonne, Gabon's coffers would swell by hundreds of millions of dollars every year, White said. The international market price for carbon stood at 12.5 euros a tonne on Tuesday.
Gabon's oil revenues have been hit by a fall in production from a peak of around 370,000 barrels a day to just 245,000 barrels now, and Ben Bongo is keen to diversify the economy.
But analysts warn that it could be some time before its forests emerged as major new sources of income. Some say any carbon credit trading scheme would have to wait till 2013.
"What we are talking about is still some way down the line. Let's see what happens at Copenhagen," said Olivier Fremond, Gabon country manager for the World Bank.
One of the sticking points was that there was not yet any agreement on if and how to reward countries for preserving their existing forests, Fremond said, adding that African rainforest states needed to gain leverage by arguing their case together.
"There is huge potential for carbon trading for the Congo Basin. The stakes are very high.. They need to have a common voice for central Africa," he said.
"Unfortunately they are not talking as one."