Saving the world’s forests and making global warming legislation affordable

For the past decade, scientists have estimated greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation to be around 20% of total global emissions.  When you cut down or burn a tree, the carbon in the tree goes into the atmosphere, adding to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

But earlier this month, Nature Geoscience reported a revised estimate of the importance of deforestation, which includes clearing forests and other wildlands through logging and/or burning, in global anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.  The authors estimate that deforestation now accounts for about 15% of human-caused CO2 emissions globally.

What happened?

While it’s tempting to point to this seeming decrease as either proof that the world’s efforts at reducing deforestation have worked, or as evidence that we made a mistake in estimating these emissions, neither would be correct.

The change is not due to a decrease in deforestation rates since the 1990s, and in fact the analyses agree that rates of global deforestation in the early 2000s were similar to those 10 years before. So, this new estimate is not a sign of progress. The change in the estimate is due to several factors, including increases in fossil fuel emissions by about one-third from the 1990s to the present, as well as revision of the estimates of emissions resulting from deforestation due to the availability of new data and scientific analyses.

The total emissions from deforestation are still as great as those from all of the cars, trucks, planes, ships and trains combined worldwide. Despite the percentage drop, deforestation – particularly in developing countries – is still a hugely significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.  For example, 80% of Indonesia’s total greenhouse gas emissions and 60% of Brazil’s result from deforestation, thus making Indonesia and Brazil the 3rd and 4th highest global emitters of greenhouse gases.

Where does deforestation stand in U.S. policy?

Fortunately, the United States is well on its way to crafting a climate and energy bill that would include the necessary provisions to help stop deforestation globally.

Environmental Defense Fund is part of the Tropical Forests and Climate Change coalition (TFCC), a diverse group of businesses and non-governmental organizations working with lawmakers to ensure that Congress includes strong forest protection provisions.

Both the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed by the House in June, and the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733) passed last week out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, contain strong provisions for forest protection.  These provisions include financing to jump start forest conservation programs in tropical countries, the inclusion of offset credits from investment in international forest conservation, and a requirement that countries participating in carbon markets transition to national level reductions as quickly as possible.

Strong provisions for forest protection in domestic legislation will both encourage a reduction in global emissions and provide a cost-effective way for U.S. companies to comply with requirements under a domestic cap-and-trade system, all the while involving developing countries in the global effort to address global warming.

In fact, by satisfying a portion of their annual compliance obligation with credits from international forest protection, U.S. companies can begin reducing emissions immediately at a manageable cost while the economy transitions to low carbon technologies. According to EPA, the costs of a cap and trade system nearly double without international deforestation offsets.

Hopefully in a few years the latest estimates of deforestation will be further revised downward because we have successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation by protecting forests and changing the economic incentives to make living trees more valuable than dead ones.

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