One of the most significant causes of climate change also presents one of the most promising opportunities to help solve this global threat, while at the same time improving the welfare of some of the world’s poorest people.
The role of forests in climate change are in focus this week as for delegates from 190 countries meet in Bali, Indonesia, to decide the next steps for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Ten years ago, the U.N. convention adopted the Kyoto Protocol that committed participating industrialized countries to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere, causing climate change. Emissions continue to increase, however, and we face potential consequences such as more severe droughts and floods, food and water shortages, unprecedented species extinctions, and mass migrations of climate change refugees.
First, the urgency and seriousness of the threat requires the Bali delegates to call for much greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by all industrialized countries. Specifically the United States must agree to participate in a global regulatory system.
Second, we must address every important cause of climate change. While deforestation is the second largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, ahead of all the world’s cars, trucks and planes combined, it is the only significant source not regulated by the Kyoto Protocol.
Conserving standing forests is one of the surest and most cost-effective ways to address climate change, and this solution is ready and waiting in the tropical forests of the developing world.
Rain forests help regulate the climate by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. When cleared for agriculture, cattle or other development, they release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere, along with more carbon from the soil beneath them.
As well as being major carbon "sinks," rain forests also are the richest storehouses of plant and animal species diversity, which is the foundation of natural ecosystems that regulate the global climate. These rain forests provide life-sustaining resources such as fresh water, food, medicines and shelter to local populations, often the poorest of the poor.
Currently, only the carbon storage of newly planted or replanted forests is eligible under the Kyoto Protocol for credits that can be traded for offsets. This excludes the vast carbon storage of intact tropical forests, leaving carbon-rich but cash-poor developing nations with little incentive to protect their vital natural resource.
This oversight puts the world’s remaining tropical forests at risk. The global timber trade and biofuels production are targeting countries with historically low deforestation rates, mostly in developing tropical countries. The resulting shift in deforestation from one place to another will cancel out any net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere.
To solve this dilemma, a new global climate change framework must make carbon storage of intact tropical forests eligible for tradable credits. At a conservative price of $10 per ton, such "preventive credits" would generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year for some of the poorest countries on Earth.
Many details need to be worked out, such as ensuring that money generated from carbon credits gets to local communities that are stewards of the forests. If we get it right, it is a win-win-win approach: preventing deforestation that releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; giving forest-rich developing nations a new source of revenue from carbon credits; and protecting the species-rich tropical forest ecosystems that provide life-sustaining benefits to local populations.
Fortunately, the private sector has become interested, with companies considering investments in carbon credits that have potential to yield huge profits as the carbon market grows and prices rise. Now global leaders must do their part by creating a preventive credit mechanism to ensure that forests in developing countries are eligible for investments, instead of being excluded from the emerging carbon market.
The Bali delegates must make tropical forests part of the climate change solution. Otherwise, we not only dismiss developing nations as important allies to prevent climate change, we are ignoring an opportunity that will last only as long as their forests survive.
CI Joins Climate Talks in Bali
Statement on U.S. Climate Security Act by CI President Russell A. Mittermeier