Getting Credit for Saving Trees

Forest cover is a natural defense against global warming. Let's pay to preserve it

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Vinai Dithajohn / OnAsia

Burned forest plantations around Riau, owned by the two giant pulp and paper producers, Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd. (APRIL) and Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

Pop quiz for all you global-warming experts: After China and the U.S., which country emits the greatest quantity of greenhouse gases per year? Answer high-tech Japan or industrial Germany, and you flunk. A holographic Al Gore will be beamed over to give you remedial lessons. It's rural Indonesia, which emits 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually--almost entirely from deforestation. Living trees absorb CO2, and as they are cut down or burned, they release their stored carbon into the air. Trees also absorb sunlight, warming the earth, but in the tropics their ability to absorb CO2 and promote cloud formation has a net cooling effect. In addition, thinning forests mean fewer trees to soak up the carbon emitted by industry and transport. Deforestation is responsible for about 20% of global carbon emissions, more than from all the cars, boats and planes in the world. Plenty of programs plant trees to offset emissions, but it is even more important to save the trees we already have. "You've got to deal with forests if you're going to make any progress on climate change," says Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund.

Despite the high emissions rate, the Kyoto Protocol gives tropical countries no incentives for protecting their forests, a process called "avoided deforestation." But that's beginning to change. The World Bank is raising $250 million for a pilot fund to support projects that would encourage governments and companies in the developed world to pay for preserving trees in the tropics in exchange for carbon credits that grant the right to emit CO2. It is a small step, but it represents one of the first attempts to use the tools of carbon finance to save the 32 million acres of forest destroyed each year. Existing carbon-credit programs focus on industrial emissions; this initiative extends carbon trading to the big chunk of CO2 emissions caused by deforestation. "If deforestation is 20% of the problem, it should be 20% of the solution," says Benoit Bosquet, a biocarbon specialist with the bank who is setting up the fund.

To reach that level, however, proponents of avoided deforestation must satisfy the skeptics who kept such projects off the Kyoto Protocol when the environmental treaty's carbon-trading program was set up in 2001. Negotiators at the time worried that the carbon released by cut or burned timber was too difficult to track accurately--just try counting the trees in the Amazon basin--so countries could have ended up receiving credit for preserving nonexistent forests. But since then, scientists have vastly improved their ability to monitor deforestation through satellite technology.

If avoided deforestation takes off, the benefits will go well beyond reducing CO2 emissions. Tropical forests are rich in biodiversity, but there's been no way to make money from keeping them pristine--until now. Giving tropical countries carbon credits for the greenhouse gases saved when trees are preserved puts a market price on maintaining forests as forests. And that allows conservation to compete economically with destructive logging and ranching. Instead of clearing trees, the rural poor could earn a living from the sale of carbon credits for preserving forests. "You can address poverty reduction [and] biodiversity cultivation and deal with huge carbon losses," says Marcel Silvius, senior program manager for Wetlands International.

Not every critic is convinced. Jutta Kill of the forest advocacy group FERN worries that rich countries will use forestry credits as an excuse to avoid reducing industrial emissions. What's certain is that avoided deforestation gives tropical nations a vital stake in the efforts to slow climate change by not forcing them to choose between development and the environment. Indonesia is already pushing for deforestation to be included in any post-Kyoto deal at the climate- change talks this winter. Let's hope it succeeds. It's time to save the trees, so they can save us.