“Saving The Forests”
October 06, 2009, 3:00am


“With one acre of tropical forest disappearing every second and the rate and severity of global climate change accelerating,” the bipartisan Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests declared, “there is the serious need for the U.S. to take a leading role in finding effective solutions.” According to the World Resources Institute, the razing of forests from Indonesia to Brazil is responsible for the release of five billion tons of carbon dioxide a year — 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than all the cars and trucks in the world. Deforestation is much more than a global warming threat — although “tropical forests cover only about 7 percent of the Earth’s dry land, they probably harbor about half of all species on Earth” and “at least 1,400 distinct indigenous and traditional peoples.” A large amount of deforestation comes from slash-and-burn clearing for subsistence agriculture, but large-scale commercial activities such as industrial cattle ranching and palm tree bio-fuels plantations now also play a significant role. Our world’s forests are trapped in a vicious cycle — global warming fuels forest fires, insect outbreaks, and droughts — which increases the carbon pollution behind global warming. As these forests act as watersheds for millions of people, their loss can lead to devastating water wars. With only 10 more days of official negotiation left before international climate talks at Copenhagen begin in December, the race is on to save the world’s forests and preserve the planet’s health. “We have to value forests when they are alive and standing,” Papua New Guinea’s climate negotiator Kevin Conrad said last month. “Presently, we only value them when they’re dead.”

INTERNATIONAL ACTION: Including deforestation, “Indonesia could be considered the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” To date, “Brazil has lost over 220,000 square miles of its Amazonian forest — an area the size of France.” However, deforestation in Brazil is slowing. On Monday, “four of the biggest companies involved in Brazilian cattle farming” signed a formal moratorium “to stop the purchase of cattle from newly deforested areas of the Amazon.” Other global efforts are also having an impact. After a three-year Greenpeace investigation, international companies including Adidas, Nike, and Timberland “threatened to cancel contracts unless their beef and leather products were guaranteed free from raw materials linked to Amazon destruction.” Wangari Maathai, the Nobel-winning founder of the Green Belt Movement, is working to plant 10 billion trees in the developing world to reforest ravaged lands. The international effort to comprehensively fund forest protection as part of new climate treaty — about $10 to $20 billion a year will cut deforestation by half — is known as reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). This investment to cut deforestation, as long as it is properly implemented, is one of the least-expensive routes to cutting global warming pollution, even ignoring the $4.5 trillion to $5 trillion in benefits of saving the world’s tropical forests. However, according to the UN REDD program, “[i]f humankind instead continues to deforest at the same pace, the last of the planet’s forests will be chopped down by 2100.” Last week, “three U.S. governors and eight regional leaders from Brazil and Indonesia” called on “the presidents of their nations to write generous forestry provisions into an international climate change pact in Copenhagen in December.”

COMPLEX CHALLENGES: Saving the world’s tropical forests is a profound challenge. “Where countries are corrupt,” the United Nations notes, “the potential for Redd corruption is dangerous.” A framework controlled by corporations and international bodies raises great concerns from representatives for indigenous people, who worry that “States and Carbon Traders will take more control over our forests.” Scientists have found that “U.S. incentives for biofuel production are promoting deforestation in southeast Asia and the Amazon by driving up crop prices and displacing energy feedstock production,” but Congress has voted to forbid land-use considerations in biofuel mandates. A $100 million scandal involving false carbon credits swept Papua New Guinea this summer. “Logging companies may turn into carbon companies,” warns conservationist Rob Dodwell, who notes that only efforts that strengthen local communities rather than reward multinational corporations have any chance of being fair or trustworthy. An international framework to solve deforestation cannot ignore the “links between the exploitation of natural resources and the funding of conflict and corruption.” In other words, storing carbon must not be the only reason to save the forests.

CONGRESSIONAL ACTION: “Deforestation is a critical national security challenge,” Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) said in February, “because of its connections with threats from climate change and food security.” Lugar hopes the United States will “exercise leadership in protecting forests and responding to the risks of climate change.” The Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), passed by the house in June, “provides funding for tropical countries to prepare and implement plans to reduce deforestation, as well as for achieving these reduction goals.” ACES establishes private and public financing from polluters to prevent deforestation, and would create an “International Climate Change Adaptation Program within the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide adaptation assistance to the most vulnerable developing countries.” Last week, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the Senate version of ACES, the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. The international forestry provisions in the bill “echo those originally included in the House bill,” though it “would allow international offsets to account for a quarter of projects annually rather than the half called for in the House bill,” thus making the private offsets program more reliable, and shifting more responsibility to public deforestation projects.