11/18/2013 10:05 am ET

Planetary Watch: U.S. Whiffs on Climate Change While Rain Forests Burn

Last Friday was not a red letter day for the planet. In one day the
Bush administration 86'ed any possibility of the federal government
doing anything on global warming,
while a federal appeals court struck down the one significant air
quality program initiated during Bush's 7+ years in office. As if
that wasn't bad enough, a new study published last week
in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that the
rate of tropical deforestation continues unabated.

Down from 6 milllion to about 2.5 million square miles, the world's rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate for a resource vital to human health.The United States and China are the two largest emitters of of carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief global warming pollutant. You probably knew that. But did you know that Indonesia [PDF] and Brazil rank third and fourth? Their high ranking comes not from burning lots of fossil fuel; it's from the burning of 00tropical rain forests.

Given the current economic realities in most developing nations, rain forests provide little or no source of income for the peoples living there. It's far more profitable to use the land for something else, and so farmers, ranchers, developers, and loggers have been cutting and burning the forests at an alarming rate to make a living.

Rain forests Are an Important Consumer of CO2 and Source for Medicines

When a forest is destroyed, the carbon stored in the wood is released into the atmosphere as CO2. It is estimated that upwards of 25 percent of all greenhouse gas pollution comes from deforestation in the tropical rain forest countries.

But global warming isn't the only reason to worry about tropical deforestation -- biodiversity is another. Tropical rain forests comprise one of the richest and most diverse ecological resources on earth. About one quarter of all prescription drugs come from rain forests, and many scientists believe that we have explored only a tiny fraction of their potential for pharmaceuticals. But if current deforestation rates continue, the rain forests and their diverse genetic treasure trove will be long gone before we have had a chance to fully understand their potential.

Rate of Rain Forest Destruction Still Too High

The estimates of deforestation are staggering -- the world has already lost about half of its tropical rain forests to development. It is estimated that tropical rain forests once spanned about 6 million square miles; today it's only about 2.5 million square miles. Between 1960 and 1990, about 1.2 million square miles of forest were destroyed -- that is a loss of half the forests left standing today in just 30 years.

By the 1990s the alarm bells finally went off. Recognizing the long-term value of the forests, the tropical rain forest nations began to take steps to rein in deforestation. They set aside forest preserves and established limits on the amount of logging and clearing that could occur (see here and here). And the world held its collective breath to see if it would work.

New Tech Aids Deforestation Estimations

Years ago, estimating deforestation rates was a difficult task; it relied on patchy data and anecdotal evidence. But with the advent of satellites and space-borne sensors and cameras, estimating deforestation rates has become more of a science and less of an art. One of the world's leaders in this area is Dr. Ruth Defries, currently of the University of Maryland but soon to be at Columbia University. Ruth is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and is a recent recipient of the "genius award" from the MacArthur Foundation.

Unfortunately, Defries and her colleagues report in PNAS that on average tropical deforestation rates continued through 2005 at a similar pace to what occurred in the 1990s; 48 percent of the total deforestation was found in Brazil and 13 percent in Indonesia. One important caveat to these numbers is that this study only goes through 2005. Satellite reports since 2005 indicate that while deforestation had dropped off considerably in Brazil between 2005 and 2007, there was a dramatic increase at the end of last year. Other areas around the globe like Congo have also experienced a rise in deforestation.

Paying Countries to Preserve Their Rain Forests

So what is to be done? The world community hopes it has now come up with an answer through the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. It's called REDD for "reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation" in developing countries. The idea behind REDD is to provide a sufficient financial incentive to the peoples of the tropical rain forest countries so that they will choose to preserve their forests. How? Through the growing carbon market.

Suppose a country like the United States has committed to lowering its greenhouse gas emissions but is having trouble. Under REDD it could choose to offset (or negate) some of its emissions by paying a tropical rain forest country to preserve some of its forest. The amount of compensation would be proportional to the amount of carbon emissions prevented.

If successful, REDD would have a number of benefits. In addition to keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, it would help preserve a valuable natural resource for generations to come. At the same time it would provide a new income stream to the relatively impoverished tropical rain forest nations -- and most importantly an income stream that would not require them to deplete their resource base. Finally, it would allow countries like the United States to meet its emissions targets at a reduced cost. (Remember during last month's Senate debate on climate change all the complaints about the cost? This is one of the ways of keeping costs down.)

Any carbon market that incorporated a REDD credit would need to be able to track deforestation rates accurately. New remote sensing satellites like the Advanced Landing and Observing Satellite (ALOS) will help, but we will always need scientists like Ruth Defries to figure out innovative and cost-effective ways to compile the data -- and maybe that's why she got the MacArthur genius award.

Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs regularly at