Cutting Tropical Deforestation to Avert Global Warming Cheaply

sorensen_sumatra4sized.jpgSlowing tropical deforestation is an essential and cost-effective way to avert severe climate change, according to a new study published in the May 10 Science Express, an advanced online publication of the journal Science.

An international team of 11 top forest and climate researchers, including civil and environmental engineer Roni Avissar of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, found that cutting deforestation rates in half by mid-century would amount to 12 percent of the emissions reductions needed to keep concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere at relatively safe levels.

“Slowing tropical deforestation won’t, by itself, solve the climate problem,” said Peter Frumhoff, the study's corresponding author and director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “But for many developing countries, it is their largest source of emissions. Climate policymakers have a historic opportunity to support their efforts to find economically viable alternatives to deforestation and do their part to slow global warming. ”

A widely reported earlier study had suggested that global warming could potentially dry out many tropical forests, increasing fires that release the large quantity of carbon stored in their trees into the atmosphere. The authors now provide new evidence that tropical forests will persist in the face of climate change, especially if nations make needed cuts in both industrial and deforestation emissions.

The study comes as international climate negotiations are taking place this week in Bonn, Germany. Policymakers there are weighing proposals for the design of international climate policies after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. On the table is an initiative introduced by the governments of Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica and several other forest-rich developing countries that are seeking to limit their emissions from deforestation. These nations are seeking financing from the global carbon market to create economic incentives for forest conservation.

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in a report on global warming solutions that well-designed measures to protect and restore tropical forests can be a cost-effective way to reduce emissions while creating jobs, conserving biodiversity, protecting watersheds, and helping to alleviate poverty.

Tropical deforestation currently accounts for about 20 percent of worldwide global warming emissions. Dramatically scaling it back is projected to cost less than $20 per ton of carbon dioxide, making it a cost-effective complement to needed reductions in industrial emissions.