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Halting Deforestation Plays a Huge Role in Reducing Carbon Emissions

GinaMarie headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment
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For two weeks, world leaders met in Paris to agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Reducing deforestation is one key way to reduce carbon emissions. Over 60 heads of state put an emphasis on forest conservation at COP21, the New York Times reports. And that is important as forests cover 31 percent of the earth’s land area, providing oxygen and absorbing carbon. However, some of the world’s forests are threatened. About 46,000 to 58,000 square miles of forest are lost every year. That is equivalent to 36 football fields being lost every minute.

Deforestation is also the second largest source of carbon emissions. Cutting carbon emissions from deforestation in half by 2020 could get us closer to the 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperature rise that experts set as the threshold, a recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience found.

“Achieving the target will therefore be challenging, even though it is in the self-interest of the international community,” the study's authors state. An economic development shift is required to go from cutting down tropical forests to conserving them. A shift away from “dependence on natural resource depletion toward recognition of the dependence of human societies on the natural capital that tropical forests represent, and the goods and services they provide” is also needed, according to the report.

If nothing is done, tropical forest deforestation will only get worse. A tropical forest area the size of India will be deforested in the next 35 years without carbon pricing, a study that came out in the spring warned. If that occurs, it will create over a sixth of the remaining carbon that can be emitted if we are to keep global temperature rise below the 2-degrees threshold.

Researchers looked at the future of tropical deforestation from 2016 to 2050 with and without carbon-pricing policies. They based their predictions on 18 million observations of historical forest loss in 101 tropical countries. If there are no new forest conservation policies, 289 million hectares of tropical forest will be cleared from 2016 to 2050, an area that is over 14 percent of earth’s tropical forests in 2000 and about the size of India. Tropical deforestation of that size will release about 169 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2) into the atmosphere during the same time period. However, if a carbon price of $20 per ton of carbon is applied universally, 77 GtCO2 would be avoided.

Just how much emissions occur from tropical deforestation? A joint study by Winrock International and the Woods Hole Research Center found that tropical deforestation is responsible for 3 billion tons of carbon emissions a year. To put that amount in perspective, consider that the average U.S. car emits about 5 tons of carbon a year from its tailpipe, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Or consider that 3 billion tons of carbon emissions is equivalent to about 13 million railcars filled with coal stretching about 125,000 miles. It’s also equal to the total emissions from Western Europe.

There is some good news. U.N. estimates released in the spring found that total carbon emissions from forests decreased by over 25 percent between 2001 and 2015, and attributed it to a slow-down in deforestation.

A lower-cost way to reduce emissions

Halting deforestation is a lower-cost way to reduce emissions, as a 2006 study commissioned by the U.K. Treasury found. In the eight countries responsible for 70 percent of emissions from land use changes, one hectare of forest land might be worth as much as $25,000 in terms of its carbon sequestration properties at a carbon price of $35 to $50. However, if there is no action taken to reduce emissions, every ton of carbon emitted will cause $85 worth of damage to the global economy.

Two climate researchers, Brent Sohngen and Robert H. Beach, found that with an average price of $27.25 per ton of carbon, “Deforestation can be potentially be virtually eliminated.” Reducing global deforestation could sequester 76 billion tons of carbon. In other words, reducing deforestation would be good for the planet, its citizens and the global economy.

Image credit: Flickr/Erin Resso

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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