Ghanaian officials at the U.N. climate change conference in Accra are publicizing a plan to harvest submerged timber from underneath the man-made Lake Volta.  Brent Latham reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Discussions began last week in Ghana on an environmental framework to replace the Kyoto protocol, an international agreement that aims to reduce carbon emissions, but which expires in 2012.  As part of the new agreement, some West African countries are lobbying for expanded incentives to preserve existing forests. 

Officials from Ghana's Forestry Commission are promoting a plan to harvest submerged timber in Lake Volta in the country's north.  They say the plan will help avoid carbon emissions and environmental damage associated with above-ground timber harvesting. 

The costs of the operation, involving the use of barges for the cutting equipment and sonar to locate the trees, will be higher than traditional logging.  The cost disparity could potentially be recouped through carbon credits, a mechanism designed by the Kyoto protocol that financially rewards projects that avoid emissions. 

But the current Kyoto protocol allows for credit only if the timber is used in place of non-renewable energy sources, says Arne Eik, a senior analyst with London-based carbon-market consulting firm Carbon Point.  He says the Ghanaian project, which plans to sell the timber on the open market, would not qualify.

"That might very well be a wise strategy from an environmental point of view, and then we can talk about, instead of using it for energy purposes, we can talk about avoided deforestation, because then you can use these trees instead of cutting down other trees, and that is the idea here," he said.  "But under the current Kyoto protocol you cannot claim carbon credits for doing such a thing because claiming avoided deforestation is not a part of the Kyoto protocol. "

Countries like Ghana, historic home to a large rain forest, are anxious to change the rules to improve financial incentives for projects which avoid emissions and deforestation, like the one in Lake Volta. 

Eik says if they are successful, this sort of initiative will become more common.

"It could very well be that after 2012 the regime will be different and you will then get a regime where you claim such carbon credits," he said. "This is a very, very hot issue in the negotiations on what kind of protocol we will get after 2012.  And from an African point of view, this is undoubtedly an important issue.  " 

Lake Volta was formed in the late 1960s after the construction of the Akosombo Dam.  The hardwood beneath the lake is still in good condition, Ghanaian officials say.  They estimate more than 14 million cubic meters of hardwood, with a value of around $4 billion, await below the lake's surface.

There are other similar lakes with submerged timber resources across Africa.  Under a new plan that rewarded countries for avoiding deforestation, those sources could more easily compete financially with traditional logging.