Saving Rainforests: Low-Hanging FruitDec 16, 2009
- Geoffrey Heal - The Earth Institute
This is the twenty-second of a
continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on
the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news
and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen
climate summit offers an opportunity to agree on two concrete policies that should
significantly reduce global warming: incentives to end deforestation, and to generate
electricity without releasing greenhouse gases. The initiative to save forests
looks like it may be the one major accomplishment at Copenhagen, with yesterday’s
announcement of an agreement that may be ready to be finalized by the end of this
week. The electricity initiative is far less advanced.
about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, and is simple to stop. No major investments
or complex new technologies are required: all that is needed is to pay landowners
more to keep forests intact than they earn from leveling them. As leveling forests
usually fetches a pittance, ending the practice is clearly the low-hanging fruit
of climate stabilization.
The proposed mechanism to accomplish this is called
Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD, and it was
first formally proposed at the 2005 world climate meeting in Montreal by the organization
that I chair, the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. This week, we finally appear
to have an almost complete agreement on REDD. We need to ensure that it is approved.
The central point here is that currently forests are worth more dead than alive;
the only way a developing country can make money from its forests is to cut them,
sell the lumber and use the cleared land for agriculture. This releases vast quantities
of CO2. Capturing and storing that carbon, the main role of an intact forest,
is by far a higher-value use than lumber and agriculture, yet it is currently
If the international community pays for REDD, we will simultaneously
reduce climate change, redistribute income to some of the world’s poorest countries,
and conserve many of earth’s rarest and most endangered species. Both the European
Union and the United States are currently spending billions of dollars promoting
speculative mechanical carbon capture and storage. It would be ironic if they
did not also invest in forest conservation, a proven carbon capture and storage
technology older than the human race.
Electricity generation is even more significant,
producing 30% of greenhouse gases. With carbon-free electricity, we would be able
to electrify ground transportation and the heating and cooling of buildings, making
these carbon-free too. Put that together with REDD, all these steps would eliminate
about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change, that is the proportion we need to keep the change in global
temperature to about 2 degrees Celsius, generally agreed to be the most we can
safely live with.
Electricity, however, is only indirectly on the national
and international agendas, through emissions caps and the cap-and-trade or tax
systems. These will provide some incentives for using non-fossil energy sources,
but not enough. Pricing carbon speaks to the social costs associated with burning
fossil fuels, but not to the problems associated with investing in developing
new technologies that will be needed to replace it. Investors’ difficulty in recovering
research and development costs, plus reluctance to make costly first moves with
these capital-intensive new technologies can prevent progress.
to encourage decarbonization include feed-in tariffs (requiring utilities to buy
renewable energy at set prices) such as those in Germany and Spain; the related
idea of renewable portfolio standards, as used in many U.S. states; tax credits
associated with renewable energy; and R&D subsidies, as practiced in many countries.
It is critical that these be made long-term and stable, as investments in power
generation have horizons of at least three decades. The U.S. experience with production
tax credits is one definitely not to be repeated: the on-again off-again history
of production tax credits has led to an erratic path of investment, crippling
the development of a new industry.
Negotiators both domestically and internationally
are stumbling because they are following the wrong path. Instead of looking at
very complex international agreements that practically redefine the international
economic order, they should be focusing on REDD, and electricity that does not
release greenhouse gases. It should be possible in Copenhagen to reach agreements
on these less contentious matters. This would put world well on the road to combating
climate change and to developing an entirely new clean energy sector.
Geoffrey Heal teaches at Columbia’s School of Business, and its School of International
and Public Affairs. He is chairman of the board of the Coalition for Rainforest