This month, the journal Nature Geoscience published a study calculating that deforestation is responsible for about 15% of global carbon emissions, down from earlier estimates of 20% or more. Most of the world's deforestation is concentrated in a few tropical nations, like Brazil and Indonesia where trees are disappearing fast when these trees die or are burned, they release into the atmosphere all the carbon they've sucked up while they were alive. According to the Nature Geoscience study, the problem of deforestation is becoming a lot less dire than previously thought.
Unfortunately, the study's findings couldn't be further from the truth. The authors' recalculation had less to do with a reduction in deforestation than with an unexpected increase in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Indeed trees are still being lost at an alarming rate, at about 13 million hectares per year as of 2005, according to the U.N. Exacerbating the deforestation problem is that there is no global system in place to discourage it. (The global carbon market created by the Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, offers carbon cap and trading as a way to begin reducing carbon emissions from energy or transportation.) "Forests are worth more dead than alive," says Russell Mittermeier, the president of the green group Conservation International.
There is some hope that valuation will shift, as the world stumbles toward the U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen next month. Negotiators are trying to include a system to protect forests called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) in the international treaty that is meant to be hammered out at the summit. Broadly speaking, REDD would allow countries to trade on the carbon value of their forests. If successful, it could be a relatively inexpensive way to quickly reduce deforestation, cut emissions and preserve the habitats of some of the most endangered species on the planet. "Forests are a part of the climate problem, so they need to be part of the solution," says Kevin Conrad, the lead climate negotiator for Papua New Guinea and a major advocate of the REDD process.
Here's how it would work in detail: developing nations would accept some kind of limit on deforestation rates, and in exchange for preserving those forests, they would receive compensation from developed countries, which would then be able to use the carbon they're saving to meet their own carbon caps. It's as simple as that, a recognition that rich nations will have to provide developing countries an economic rationale to stop cutting down trees. The benefits would be global (reducing climate change) and local (helping conservation efforts). Loss of habitat is the No. 1 cause of extinction, and the tropical rain forests that hold the most carbon are also home to the most diverse collection of species. "REDD is a new, exciting opportunity in conservation," says Brett Jenks, the CEO of RARE Conservation.
But it's not an easy opportunity. Tropical forests are vast, so it might be expensive and time-consuming to accurately track which trees are being cut down and which are being saved, although better satellite technology is making that easier. If REDD is implemented on a project-by-project basis, rather than across entire nations, there's a real risk of leakage; deforestation would be stopped in one area, only to bleed somewhere else, and carbon emissions wouldn't be reduced. Activists for indigenous groups the native people who actually live in tropical forests worry that they won't benefit financially from the REDD process, or even be forced to move off their land. If the preserved trees are burned or cut down later, the carbon would be lost. And it doesn't help that countries with high rates of deforestation aren't exactly well governed, which could make the implementation of REDD on the ground a real headache. "The cost is not going to be cheap to do," says Nigel Sizer, RARE's vice president for Pacific and Asia operations. "There is legal uncertainty at every level of this."
The upcoming Copenhagen summit is meant to clear up that uncertainty, and there is real hope that REDD could be a bright spot in a meeting that might otherwise be considered a failure. While the larger negotiations remain deadlocked between developed and developing countries over future carbon-emission cuts, both sides have an interest environmentally and financially in reducing forest loss. There's already progress being made: on Nov. 12 provincial governors from Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines agreed to back REDD. In Brazil, new statistics show the country has cut deforestation rates in half, signs that the government is finally taking the problem seriously. The South American nation stands to be a major beneficiary of REDD the head of the Brazilian Carbon Markets Association estimated that the country could earn $16 billion a year from REDD.
For that to happen, some version of REDD must become a part of a new global climate deal and, of course, there must actually be a new global carbon deal. Although preventing deforestation won't be the solution to climate change, it's a necessary start.