How to Cut Deforestation in Half to Save the Climate

New study calculates the carbon emitted by logging the tropics.
Brazil's forest conservation efforts remain under pressure by logging and agriculture expansion. (Photo: Ricardo Beliel/Getty Images)
Dec 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Healthy forests are crucial to holding off catastrophic climate change. But global deforestation rates—particularly in the tropics—are mostly on an upward trajectory. In the past year nearly 200 nations and corporations, along with industry and nongovernmental groups, have pledged to halve global forest loss by 2020.

As negotiators kick off two weeks of crucial talks on global climate action in Paris, forest researchers and conservation advocates are focused on making sure the agreement that is reached at the conference helps hold them to that promise.

“Achieving this kind of reduction is challenging. It’s also necessary,” said Daniel Zarin, director of programs at the nonprofit Climate and Land Use Alliance. “Forests are an important part of the climate change solution.”

“It is almost impossible to imagine how globally, the achievement of targets like keeping global warming under 2 degrees [Celsius], or in the longer term a carbon- neutral world, is possible without achieving and going beyond this kind of target,” said Zarin, who is the lead author of a new study on how tropical nations could achieve the 2020 goal.

RELATED: Forests Can Feed Billions but Only If They’re Left Standing

In the study, published Monday in the journal Global Change Biology, Zarin and his colleagues estimated that between 2001 and 2013, tropical deforestation accounted for about 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

If tropical nations halve current rates of deforestation in the next five years, they will prevent about 1.1 billion tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere annually, according to the study. That is roughly how much greenhouse gas pollution Japan produces each year.

The team mapped the forest cover in tropical forest nations between 2000 and 2013, at a highly detailed scale of about 100 square feet, Zarin said. They then measured how much land was converted from forests to other uses, such as grazing pastures or palm oil plantations, and calculated how much forest-based carbon storage was lost as a result.

Rather than note the forest losses in acres or square miles, Zarin said, he and his team opted to express them in terms of carbon emissions, because that is how most climate action plans approach the problem.

They found that for the time period included in the study, deforestation accounted for about 218 million tons a year of carbon emissions in Indonesia and 47.4 million tons in Malaysia. The Democratic Republic of the Congo also had significant deforestation, equivalent to about 50.7 million tons of carbon emissions a year.

The team then posed a few scenarios for how various nations could reduce deforestation.

Brazil, which “stands out not only as the largest source of carbon emissions from gross deforestation but also due to its decade-long decline,” could continue its successful combinations of “public policy initiatives, law enforcement, and voluntary actions by the private sector,” the study concluded. “Expansion of agricultural production could continue in Brazil for at least the next 25 years without further conversion of natural ecosystems.”

Indonesia, the second-largest source of emissions from tropical deforestation, had some success in curbing forest loss between 2012 and 2013, the team found, “likely due to a combination of price and policy signals, particularly in the palm oil and pulp and paper sectors.” But “the sustainability of the downturn remains uncertain.”

RELATED: Saving the World’s Forests From Toilet Paper, Margarine, and Skin Cream

These two industries “are significant drivers of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Emma Lierley, a communications manager with the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network. “Particularly with palm oil, that industry is looking to grow into new territories, which is disconcerting. As demand increases, we’re seeing more forests fall to palm oil plantations around the world.”

In Indonesia’s palm oil industry, “we’re really at that stage where initial commitments have been made,” said Lierley. “But what’s really lacking are significant players in the industry making that commitment.”

On its “Snack Foods Scorecard,” Rainforest Action Network names around a dozen food and beverage corporations, including Nestlé, Kellogg’s, and Con Agra Foods, as “front runners” in working toward palm oil supplies that are environmentally sustainable and free of human and labor rights abuses.

Corporations “now need to go farther and make their entire supply chains transparent and do due diligence to be sure all suppliers are in accordance with their forest-conservation policies, down to the ground level,” Lierley said.