From November 29th through the end of this week leaders and delegates from around the world are meeting in Cancun, Mexico to discuss how to address climate change and its myriad of impacts on the planet. Here governments are working to hash out details for a global plan to cut pollution, protect the planet, and safeguard the people living on it, all as part of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. And this time, I’m honored to be here to follow the action first hand.
The story in the media has been the same: “Don’t expect a treaty.” Still, I can’t help but be in awe of the fact that 194 countries are coming together to find a solution to a problem that affects us all, even if some misguided politicians in the US still want to dismiss global warming as myth. Fortunately, much of the world disregards these deniers, recognizes the urgency to fix his problem and continues to push forward towards a solution. And while the road is tough, progress is possible.
One area that many hope will yield success is an agreement on controlling deforestation, or REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).
Deforestation is responsible for some 20 percent of the world's annual global warming pollution. To put it into perspective, that’s roughly the same as the total annual emissions coming from the United States or China and more than the total yearly emissions from every car, truck, plane, ship and train on Earth combined.
We’ve known for decades the importance of safeguarding our forests. Healthy forests help protect fresh water supplies, and help prevent erosion, landslides and floods that can damage our homes and destroy communities. Forests are home to millions of unique and often undiscovered species of plants and animals, protecting an essential part of the world’s biodiversity. Forests also help regulate local and global weather patterns and play a key role in our water cycle. This, in turn, affects agriculture and ecosystems worldwide. Studies have shown that destroying the Amazon rainforest alone could reduce rainfall all across the Americas.
But perhaps one of the most important roles that forests play is their capacity to store carbon. The trees and soils in rainforests absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide – the main pollutant responsible for climate change. Forests store roughly 25 percent of the planet's carbon, some 300 billion tons. When trees are cut down, however, they start releasing the carbon dioxide they have stored over their lifetimes up into the atmosphere. As some have put it, when trees are destroyed, they start breathing out pollution rather than cleaning our air.
REDD: Beyond Just Saying No
Most of the world’s deforestation occurs in developing nations, where economic opportunities are often limited. Just telling them to avoid cutting down trees simply will not cut it. People live as farmers and ranchers, professions that require them to move into forested areas to raise their cattle and plant crops. Asking them to stop clearing forests could have serious economic consequences. That’s why addressing economic losses in developing countries is central to the success of REDD.
Still, there are good reasons to be hopeful. Brazil, for one, has set an example for the world by lowering its deforestation rate incredibly quickly. In 2004, some 2.8 million hectares (10,700 square miles) were being lost each year. By 2009, that number had already dropped to only 750,000 hectares (less than 3000 square miles) per year.
REDD aims to incentivize farmers in developing countries to leave trees standing, and countries are committing significant funds to make this happen. A REDD mechanism could provide compensation to governments, communities, companies or individuals if they have taken actions to reduce global warming emissions from deforestation.
Money alone, however, won’t solve the problem. Countries must begin to agree to a framework which will implement a guiding framework that ensures safeguards on biodiversity, social benefits, and rights of indigenous peoples and communities, while preserving natural forests. Ultimately, making long-term progress on deforestation goes to the heart of valuing and viewing natural capital in a new way.
By reducing deforestation, we can begin to address climate change in an easy and inexpensive manner and take a significant step towards improving our future.