Addressing Deforestation at Global Climate Summit

Last night the governors of five U.S. states along with governors from a number of Brazilian and Indonesian states signed an agreement to work together to reduce emissions from tropical deforestation and degradation.  It was a feel good photo op moment with leaders from around the world agreeing to work together, but there is some real political tension underlying that agreement.

Here's the problem: There is lots of skepticism about international forest offsets and much of this concern is justified.  In order to incorporate emission reductions from reduced deforestation, we need to be convinced that those reductions are real and lasting.

That's not easy to do. The tropical forests in countries like Brazil and Indonesia are both vast and remote.  In many cases, legal frameworks are poorly developed and inadequately enforced.  There are conflicts between indigenous peoples and migrants both of whom are understandably more focused on feeding their families than protecting the global climate. Powerful private companies often overrule or control local governments. 

Even in the best of circumstances, these efforts require determination of a baseline that defines what would have otherwise occurred. But defining a credible baseline is always difficult, and particularly so for regions afflicted with political instability and illegal logging.  Similarly, adoption of agreements to reduce deforestation must be accompanied by mechanisms to ensure that those agreements will be complied with over many years into the future.  But regularly and accurately measuring forest carbon across a vast remote region is an extremely daunting task.

On the other hand, anyone who has considered what is at stake realizes the urgency of trying to make a difference.  We can't walk away from the potential loss of the world's remaining tropical forests both because of the enormous increase in global warming emissions their destruction would entail and because of the loss of irreplaceable biodiversity.

I believe that the solution to this conflict lies in focusing on where we are rather than on where we might want to be one day.  Given the unsolved problems of measurement, baseline, and verification, we're not ready today to implement a international carbon market in which emission reductions from avoided deforestation in distant tropical forests offsets investments in renewable energy or more efficient cars here in California.  And, frankly, we may never be.  But we are ready to collaborate with people and organizations across the globe to develop measurement protocols, crediting approaches, and verification mechanisms that will allow us to begin to act with confidence and credibility to reduce tropical deforestation as part of the international policy response to climate change.