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Cutting deforestation can fight climate change, reduce poverty and conflict

Cutting deforestation can fight climate change, reduce poverty and conflict

Cutting deforestation can fight climate change, reduce poverty and conflict

Rhett A. Butler,
September 24, 2008

Forest conservation can play a critical role in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and alleviate poverty, said a prominent group of politicians, development experts, and environmental NGOs meeting in New York City to discuss U.S. climate policy.

Organized by Avoided Deforestation Partners, an international policy group, the meeting sought to establish a strategy to highlight the global impact of deforestation and push for the inclusion of tropical forests in domestic climate policy. Attendees included leaders of WWF, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Vision, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, Care International, and the Union of Concerned Scientists; former Vice President Al Gore; Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prize-winning activist from Kenya; Bharrat Jagdeo, president of the South American country of Guyana; and executives from a number of carbon-trading and financial firms. The event was hosted by veteran journalist Dan Rather.

The luncheon kicked off with remarks by Jeffrey Horowitz, a founding partner of Avoided Deforestation Partners. Horowitz said that reducing emissions from deforestation would offer a variety of benefits beyond mitigating global warming, including helping prevent species loss, offering new opportunities for sustainable development, and reducing conflict in some of the world's poorest regions.

Tropical deforestation rates from 2000-2005, ranked in descending order by the highest amount of average annual forest loss for 25 countries based on data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Image by Rhett A. Butler, click to enlarge.

"A decade ago, 'saving the rainforest' was something that many acknowledged we should do. Now that we have undeniable evidence of the connection between forests, climate and conflict, it is clear this is something we must do. Otherwise, we face unacceptable security risks from catastrophic climate change, dangerous regional conflicts and widespread humanitarian disasters."

Horowitz was followed by Kevin Knobloch, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists; Carter Roberts, President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund – U.S. (WWF); and Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE. The speakers highlighted the role forests play in climate regulation and sustaining rural communities and agreed that the U.S. must lead efforts to include forests in future climate policy.

"Deforestation disproportionately affects some of the world's poorest communities. The wholesale cutting of tropical forests robs vulnerable people of their livelihoods and their identities, creating mobile populations that are prone to hunger, disease and conflict," said Gayle. "It is crucial that the U.S. take a leadership role in fighting this cycle of destruction and poverty."

"Meeting the climate challenge requires swift and deep reductions in heat-trapping emissions from both deforestation and burning fossil fuels," added Knobloch. "Developing countries are seeking to preserve their forests, and the United States has a unique opportunity and responsibility to help them do so. The U.S. Congress must act quickly to pass comprehensive climate policy that achieves reductions from all major sources of heat-trapping emissions."

Roberts surprised many in the audience when he said that WWF would no longer oppose including forest conservation in international climate agreements. The organization had previously blocked avoided deforestation initiatives, arguing that climate policy should focus on reductions in industrial emissions by developed countries.

"In Kyoto, WWF was pivotal in keeping forests out. We have changed our position," he said. “There is no silver bullet for resolving the climate crisis. We need a broad effort that targets all sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Tropical deforestation, which accounts for nearly a fifth of global emissions, obviously must be an integral part of a comprehensive climate change strategy."

Nobel Peace Prize winners discuss avoided deforestation

The speakers were followed by an 80-minute discussion between Nobel Peace Prize laureates Al Gore and Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement. Both urged the U.S. to view forests as part of the solution to what Gore calls the "climate crisis".

"One of the most effective things we can do in the near term to address the climate crisis is to protect the world's tropical forests,” said Gore, adding that avoided deforestation should be part of a portfolio of mechanisms — including renewable energy and energy efficiency — for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Overview: Avoided Deforestation

Avoided deforestation is based in the premise that tropical forests sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas. When forests are razed and burned, the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Given that deforestation rates are currently around 13 million hectares per year according to the U.N., forest clearing is a substantial source of emissions: around one-fifth of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, or more than the entire transportation sector.

Under a proposal advanced by the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, a group of 30 tropical countries, developing countries would be compensated for protecting their forests. Experts say the concept could eventually trigger the flow of billions of dollars to tropical countries for forest conservation and poverty alleviation initiatives. Still while the idea has found wide support from politicians, scientists, and environmentalists, there are lingering concerns over how to compensate countries that have extensive forest cover and low rates of annual forest loss, since payments are based on historical deforestation rates, as well as how to ensure that local communities — that may lack formal title to land — see benefits.

The meeting acknowledged these worries but emphasized that done properly, avoided deforestation could cost-effectively deliver multiple benefits to humanity.

Maathai emphasized the social gains from preserving forests and expanding tree cover.

"The world's remaining tropical forests must be protected, because without them not only will the global climate not be stabilized, but the entire world will suffer," said the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. "This is particularly true for many in the global south, where protecting forests is not only about conservation but also about economic development. Forests are the source of livelihoods, water and energy, and in most places they host abundant biodiversity that attracts tourism income. Destruction of forests in many places has jeopardized key economic sectors."

Gore and Maathai's discussion was moderated by Dan Rather, long-time anchor of the CBS Evening News and now a newscaster with HD Net News.

Politicians present a case for conserving forests

Also speaking was Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana, a South American country that has one of the highest proportions of forest cover in the world. Jagdeo made headlines last year when he offered up the entirety of his country's remaining forest cover as a giant carbon offset in exchange for "development aid" and "technical assistance needed to make the change to a green economy."

At the luncheon, Jagdeo said Guyana would need to spend billions on measures to adapt to rising sea levels which threaten to inundate the populated parts of the country. He estimated that fortifying the sea wall and levy system that presently protects Guyana from flooding, would cost $2.5 billion — a substantial sum of money for a country that is one of the poorest in the Western hemisphere.

The event concluded with animated remarks by Stuart Eizenstat, former U.S. ambassador to the E.U., who said that the involvement of both environmental groups and development NGOs reflects the importance of forest conservation in mitigating climate change.

"This is the beginning of a very significant conversation between the world's leading poverty and environment groups," said Eizenstat. "The fact that two communities that have not always seen eye-to-eye are joining together on this issue proves how crucial tropical forests are to global stability and prosperity. It will be up to the next President and Congress to heed these groups' call to action and make reducing tropical deforestation a central element of U.S. climate policy. The EU must also join tropical forest nations to embrace the role that avoided deforestation can play in combating climate change and poverty."

In addition to policy makers, humanitarian and development groups, and environmental NGOs, the meeting also included a number of participants from the private sector, including executives from investment management firms and banking giants, law firms, energy companies, and carbon trading and ecosystem services outfits. McKinsey & Company hosted a discussion forum following the luncheon.


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