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Stanford, CA – Tropical deforestation, which releases more than 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, is a major contributor to global climate change. Recognizing this, a group of forest-rich developing nations has called for a strategy to make forest preservation politically and economically attractive. The result is a two-year initiative, dubbed “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation” (RED), launched by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In a Policy Forum article appearing in the May 10 edition of Science Express, an international team* of climate researchers makes a case for the RED initiative from a scientific and technological standpoint. They also discuss some of the political and economic challenges that the initiative will face, and outline a few key solutions to these issues.
“Many of these countries resisted certain provisions of the Kyoto Protocol because they felt that it intruded on their national sovereignty,” said Christopher Field, director of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology and a co-author on the policy article. “Now, they are ready and willing to address forestry strategies in a constructive manner, on their own terms. It is very encouraging.”
On the scientific and technical side, the authors address two main questions. First, can preserving tropical forests make a significant dent in climate-threatening carbon emissions? And second, will these preserved forests be able to survive in an environment altered by the climate change that cannot be avoided?
“The answer in both cases is a qualified ‘yes,’” Field said. “As with all measures to address global warming, the key is immediate and aggressive action.”
On the first question, the authors found that reducing deforestation rates by 50% over the next century will save an average of about half a billion metric tons of carbon every year. This by itself could account for as much as 12% of the total reductions needed from all carbon sources to meet the IPCC target of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the year 2100.
As for the second issue, computer models that link climate effects to changes in the carbon cycle have predicted that tropical forests will survive and continue to act as a “sink” by absorbing carbon, provided that emissions can be kept under control . The efficiency of the tropical forest as a carbon sink might in fact diminish over time, but the authors expect that it will not disappear completely.
The political challenges to reducing deforestation in the tropical developing world are varied and complex. Traditionally, many countries have viewed their forests as an economic resource that they have the right to harvest, much as oil- and ore-rich nations exercise the right to harvest those resources. As such, many proposed solutions are centered on direct economic incentives to reduce rates of tree clearing.
However, the authors of the policy article describe low-cost measures that can enhance the success of carbon-trade systems and subsidized low-carbon development programs. For example, by strategically evaluating forest land to determine its value for other uses, developing countries can focus on clearing only areas with high agricultural value.
“It will require political will and sound economic strategy to make the RED initiative work,” explains Field. “But the initiative provides a big reduction in emissions at low cost. It is a good example of the kind of creative thinking that can help solve the climate problem.”
*Co-authors on the paper are Raymond Gullison of the University of British Columbia, Canada; Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists; Josep Canadell of the Global Carbon Project, Australia; Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution; Daniel Nepstad of The Woods Hole Research Center; Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University; Roni Avissar of Duke University; Lisa Curran of Yale University; Pierre Friedlingstein of IPSL/LSCE, France; Chris Jones of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, United Kingdom; and Carlos Nobre of Centro de Previsão de Tempo e Estudos Climáticos, Brazil.
The Carnegie Institution of Washington (www.carnegieinstitution.org), a private nonprofit organization, has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It has six research departments: the Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, both located in Washington, D.C.; The Observatories, in Pasadena, California, and Chile; the Department of Plant Biology and the Department of Global Ecology, in Stanford, California; and the Department of Embryology, in Baltimore, Maryland.