By Karin Rives
Washington — Armed with $4.5 billion in new funding pledges, world leaders are beginning to tackle a major contributor to climate change: deforestation. In mid-March, representatives from more than 60 nations met in Paris for the International Conference on the Major Forest Basins to begin to develop a global plan to implement REDD — the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program. It was the first follow-up to the Copenhagen climate summit in late 2009, and the 10 countries leading the effort say they will have a REDD plan completed for the United Nations climate meeting in Mexico in December.
Under the program, dubbed REDD-plus, developed countries would pay developing countries to protect their trees. If implemented, it could become a cornerstone of the international effort to save tropical rain forests and other woodlands that are now disappearing at an alarming rate.
Agriculture, logging and other human activities are eliminating millions of hectares of forest a year, and each felled tree releases carbon dioxide into the air. While countries such as Brazil have managed to slow the destruction, it’s estimated that one-fifth of carbon emissions (PDF, 40KB) today come from deforestation.
As negotiators forge an international REDD strategy, corporations, nongovernmental organizations and government agencies are already working hard to stem forest destruction in vulnerable regions.
Helping their cause is a fledgling commodities market for carbon dioxide offsets, credits that countries, companies and individuals buy under carbon-trading programs to compensate for their own emissions. The payments from these credits give local landowners an economic incentive to preserve, rather than cut, their trees.
If REDD is implemented and the United States moves forward with legislation that would cap greenhouse gas emissions and allow industry to purchase forest carbon offsets to meet emissions targets, the impact would be huge, said Don Melnick, a conservation professor and forestry expert at Columbia University in New York City.
He is advising a group called the Amazon Forest Carbon Partnership that is working with local environmental trust funds in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to establish the best practices for future so-called “avoided deforestation carbon credits.” This is in anticipation of a growing demand for forest preservation projects in the years ahead.
“There are a lot of people right now doing the groundwork for developing the market and getting everything in place,” Melnick said.
USAID RAMPING UP FOREST PROJECTS
At the same time, government programs are spending more time and resources to help developing countries slow their tree consumption. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, has a number of forestry and forest conservation projects under way that are making a difference in local communities and ecosystems worldwide.
Since the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009, however, the agency has been refocusing some of its work to prepare regions for U.N.-led REDD projects. Equipped with more than $74 million earmarked this year for climate change-related forest investments, USAID will be working with the World Bank on new activities such as accounting and verification of greenhouse gases, and REDD-plus “market readiness.”
Several ongoing or recently completed projects in the USAID portfolio include a partnership between USAID/Kenya and Clean Air Action Corporation to work with 40,000 small farms to plant trees and gain access to potential carbon markets. USAID is also working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve forest-focused greenhouse gas inventories in developing countries.
Such initiatives come in addition to traditional tree-conservation activities such as the 70,000 indigenous shade trees the agency recently planted in Cote D’Ivoire, and the 2.4 million hectares of biologically significant forest it helped place under management by timber companies committed to sustainable forestry in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Environmental activists welcome the growing commitment to forest projects, but note that the estimated price tag for reducing deforestation, at several billion U.S. dollars annually, requires a much bigger investment by leading nations.
“Everybody looks to the U.S. as the world’s largest economy and biggest footprint, and there’s a lot we can do as Americans,” said Bruce Cabarle, the forest carbon program director at the World Wildlife Fund. “The question is, is [what we do now] enough to address the global challenge of climate change? Is it commensurate with the need and challenge that we face?”