01/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rain Forests to Headline at Poznan...

Dr. Bill Chameides, recently appointed to America"s Climate Choices, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs at

At this year's climate meeting in Poland, the world's nations are rolling up their collective sleeves to address, among other issues, the root causes of deforestation . . . and not a moment too soon.

We all know that the top two emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2) are China and the United States. But it might surprise you to learn that Indonesia and Brazil rank [pdf] third and fourth. How could this be? The answer lies not in fossil fuel-burning but deforestation.

Tropical Rain Forests Are a Rich Resource Disappearing Too Fast

Tropical rain forests -- a treasure trove of biodiversity that contributes to a wide range of valuable products including medicines -- store huge reservoirs of carbon. But in the rush to ramp up agricultural output, tropical rain forests are being cut down and burned at a rate of 32 million acres (roughly the size of England) per year. When forests are chopped and burned, their carbon is released into the atmosphere as CO2.  Amazingly - and disturbingly - tropical rain forest destruction accounts for about one fifth of the total global CO2 emissions.

The good news is that slowing deforestation rates represents a great opportunity to slash CO2 emissions -- without having to wait for major changes to the world's energy infrastructure.

A Global Solution: Paying to Keep Forests in Place

Many tropical rain forest nations have been trying to slow their deforestation rates but with very limited success.
Typically gains in one region are quickly offset by losses in another,
keeping the global picture gloomy. Deforestation rates remain high.

Economics play into the problem. For example, cutting down forests for farms represents a way to a better life for people living in these countries, who tend to be poor - often impoverished. The catch is that the soils in these forests are generally not well-suited for agriculture and quickly become unproductive, necessitating more deforestation. In short, agriculture in these regions is not sustainable in the long term.

Carbon markets, however, represent a possible solution for providing a potential new source of income for rain forest nations and preserving a precious resource to boot. A global cap-and-trade regime could allow industrialized nations to essentially buy time and still address climate change. While overhauling energy infrastructures, rich countries could pay rain forest nations to keep their forests in place, reducing CO2 emissions.

So why has this not happened? Good question. For reasons unclear to me the Kyoto Protocol did not address deforestation -- an appalling oversight given that deforestation makes up 20 percent of global emissions.

Figuring Out a New Way Forward for Forests (and Climate)

But that was Kyoto, which expires in 2012. Now the world is busy negotiating a new agreement - one that can correct some of Kyoto's shortcomings. Many are pinning hopes on a program called Reducing Deforestation in Developing Countries (REDD), which would provide a mechanism for using carbon credits as an economic incentive for slowing deforestation.

At last year's climate talks (the thirteenth Conference of the Parties or COP-13), held in Bali, Indonesia, the momentum for REDD was slowed by the realization that, as with many complex issues, the devil is in the details. Some sticking points of critical importance include ensuring at least three things:

  • that the economic incentives provided by developed nations adequately address the needs of the rain forest nations' poor; 
  • that we are able to document total deforestation rates in rain forest nations so we can calculate their CO2 emissions; and
  • that we know what to do if deforestation rates increase in a nation after it has been compensated for slowing emission.

The task at hand for the negotiators in Poznań is to build on the work of last year's negotiations, lay out the roadmap for implementing REDD, and thus set the stage for a global agreement to begin in 2012 when Kyoto expires.

Tune in next week when Lydia Olander from Duke's Nicholas Institute will give us an update from Poznań.