By Peter Murphy
BOGOTA, Oct 30 (Reuters) - A Colombian environmental charity will launch a carbon trading platform in mid-2015 to companies at home and abroad seeking to voluntarily offset emissions, it said on Thursday, as projects in the Andean nation to cut greenhouse gases intensify.
The Andean nation, one of the world's most biodiverse, has up to 17 million potentially reforestable hectares, an area larger than Greece, to generate carbon credits, said Fundacion Natura, the charity heading up the planting initiatives around the country.
Though Colombia does not have legally binding greenhouse gas emissions limits, some local companies eager to show ecological credentials have paid upfront to finance projects generating credits independent certifiers will issue next year.
"Colombia has big potential. There are large areas available for reforestation, and this is a big advantage in the voluntary markets," said Alexandra Ochoa, a climate change expert from the foundation as it announced the platform's future launch.
The creation of a voluntary market would give Colombia a head-start for whenever it eventually committed to binding international agreements to cut emissions, Ochoa said, which could come about during the United Nations' COP21 climate conference to be held in Paris next year.
Colombia's portion of the Amazon forest to the south and areas along its Pacific coastline have huge potential to accommodate carbon offsetting projects, the foundation said, generating income for rural dwellers with land to spare.
As well as tree planting, the foundation is leading a project to reduce the practice of cooking on wood fires in impoverished rural areas, by providing more fuel-efficient enclosed stoves which are much better for respiratory health.
Fundacion Natura is also consulting with several companies to see how they can reduce rather than offset their emissions and potentially qualify them to receive sellable carbon credits.
Globally around $379 million of voluntary carbon credits representing 76 million tonnes of captured carbon or avoided emissions, were traded last year, according to a report by analysts Ecosystem Marketplace.
The so-called compliance carbon market, the voluntary market's larger counterpart, is overseen by the United Nations and used by some of signatories to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol who have committed to cutting their total emissions.
The carbon trading platform is being developed by the Bolsa Mercantil de Colombia (BMC), a commodities exchange used by physical producers and consumers of farm produce including rice, corn, soy and beef.
Reforestation projects continue to generate new carbon credits each year due to trees' continuous growth and their ability to absorb increasing amounts of carbon, the larger they grow.
By boosting incomes in rural areas, the carbon-offsetting projects may help cement the peace Colombia is striving to achieve after 50 years of war if it can also help lure poor farmers away from cultivation of coca whose trafficking funds the country's leftist guerrillas groups, the FARC and ELN.
(Editing by Marcelo Teixeira and Lisa Shumaker)
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