“Nobel Prizers” on Deforestation

Yesterday, I attended a sort of star studded event with my colleague Jacob Scherr to discuss reducing emissions from deforestation as a part of efforts to tackle global warming pollution, hosted by a group called Avoided Deforestation Partners.  No red carpet, neon signs, or autographs but lots of big names.  The event was headlined by two Nobel Peace Prize winners -- Al Gore and Wangari Maathai -- moderated by Dan Rather, and attended by the heads of a number of major US environmental, development, and poverty eradication organizations (among many other headliners).

The event was aimed more at raising the visibility of addressing global warming emissions from deforestation than getting into the "nitty gritty" details of how best to mobilize the necessary policy and finance as is being discussed in the international negotiations towards Copenhagen and as a part of US climate legislation.  What did these "Nobel Prizers" say about the challenge of addressing a source of global emissions that accounts for up to 20% of current global emissions, occurs in places that hold most of the world's biodiversity, and is home to a large share of the world's population-tropical forests in developing countries?

Here are some of the highlights I took from the moderated discussion with Gore and Maathai (see here for a brief story from the International Herald Tribune and a post from Andy Revkin).

Wangari Maathai emphasized that forests need to be viewed not as trees but as:

  • ecosystem service providers (e.g., that support water supply for agriculture in many regions as forests control and impact rainfall);
  • buffers against the impacts of global warming (e.g., mangrove forests can protect populations from storm surge that result from hurricanes/typhoons and reduce impacts of landslides from heavy rain). A point made by Gore as well when he highlighted that Haiti and the Dominican Republic were both hit with a hurricane recently but the impacts were much more severe in Haiti (which has very little forest left) than in the Dominican Republic (which has a larger portions of its forest left);
  • buffers against some security threats (e.g., reduced rainfall leads to pressure on resources which cause famine, war, and migration); and
  • a tool to help eradicate poverty in the world's poorest regions (e.g., tree planting and forest preservation can often empower individuals and create employment opportunities).

She also highlighted that developing countries (she is from Kenya) can't just sit back and say that they won't do anything to address global warming until the world's developed countries lead.  Forests are a clear place where we need a relationship where developing countries need to step up and say we can't destroy what we have...we need you (the US) to come work with us.  She pointed out that the leaders of the Congo Basin (which she represents as the Goodwill Ambassador and which holds the world's largest rainforest outside the Amazon Basin) have moved in this direction recently.  They signed a binding treaty to take action and have created a fund to support efforts to address Congo Basin deforestation.  Both the UK and Norway have stepped up with contributions of $100 million each-she didn't pass the hat but welcomed contributions from the US towards this effort.

Al Gore emphasized that we can't wait until forests are gone before we come up with a solution to global warming emissions from deforestation.  Every second an area the size of a football field is lost to deforestation-"snap, snap". 

One of the most effective things we can do to tackle global warming in the near-term is to address tropical deforestation.  But harkening back to fights of old, he emphasized that we need emissions reductions in both the energy sector and deforestation if we are going to tackle global warming-it is not an or proposition.

Gore also highlighted the strong link between poverty eradication efforts and deforestation and put a "call to arms" that the development and environment community work more closely together on this issue as the combination of these two movements can be more powerful on this-a theme stressed by other presenters.

What did I take from this high-level event?  I took from the "Prizers" a couple of points worth emphasizing:

  • we need solutions now if we are going to address global warming pollution from deforestation-time is not on our side as the forests (and the ensuing emissions) could be largely gone if we don't mobilize mechanisms quick enough. How do we combine various mechanisms effectively over the necessary timeframe?
  • Working to preserve the world's tropical forests has big ramifications for communities that are generally not as actively engaged in efforts to address global warming-e.g., the development, poverty eradication, national security, and disaster assistance communities. Can these joint forces mobilize effectively to use their varied tools?
  • We need developed country leadership in reducing emissions at home in the energy sector, combined with tools to assist developing countries in tackling global warming emissions from deforestation. What does mean in terms of the design of international and US efforts to address global warming?
  • The one thing that they didn't highlight, which is unfortunate, is the link between the demand for forest products (e.g., wood products, cattle, and soy) and deforestation in a number of countries (as my colleague Jacob Scherr has highlighted). The NRDC team has been working for years with a number of other groups, Congressman Blumenauer, and Senator Wyden on trying to stem the trade in illegal timber. Their recent success was to get the US to ban imports of illegal logs and wood products as part of an amendment to the Lacey Act.

In later posts, I'll suggest some ways I think we can design some effective policies to address these challenges.  In the meantime, it is critical to retain the visibility of the need to address global warming pollution from deforestation in both the international and US climate debates.  We need to keep up the drumbeat (as this event intended) so we don't lose sight.  So, I'll bestow upon these two Nobel Prize Winners another prize to their trophy case-"Champions of Deforestation Emissions Reductions". 

Next prize to be awarded to the policymaker or world leader that supports the tools necessary to help solve this challenge.