Peer-Reviewed Study: Carbon Emissions from Tropical Deforestation Could be Halved within Five Years

New study finds big reductions from Brazil largely offset by increases in other tropical forest countries. Achieving goal of 50 percent deforestation cut by 2020 remains possible, but difficult.

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2015-11-30_deforestationPARIS/WASHINGTON, DC — Cutting carbon emissions from deforestation in half across the tropics would keep 1.135 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, and would contribute significantly to urgent efforts to limit the global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius, according to a study published today. The findings call attention to the critical role decreasing deforestation plays in slowing climate change ahead of next week’s United Nations conference on climate change.

The study, Can carbon emissions from tropical deforestation drop by 50% in 5 years?, which appears in the December edition of the scientific journal Global Change Biology, assembled the most up-to-date data to generate a map of the amount of carbon in tropical forests to establish benchmarks for average annual carbon emissions caused by deforestation in the tropics. The study’s results are also available today on Global Forest Watch Climate, a new mapping and analysis tool that empowers users with access to data about tropical deforestation and its effects on global climate change.

“Halving emissions from deforestation is achievable,” said Nancy Harris, a co-author of the report and research manager for Global Forest Watch at the World Resources Institute. “But first you need robust, transparent and evidence-based benchmarks against which to measure progress. New satellite-based data, published in this paper and publicly available online, gives us that necessary starting point.”

Brazil’s Achievement

“Nowhere else has a single country reduced emissions by over a billion tons of carbon annually in just a few years,” said Daniel Zarin, the study’s lead author. “But that’s the scale at which Brazil cut emissions from deforestation between 2004 and 2009. Unfortunately, much of that has been offset by other tropical countries deforesting more.”

“Brazil’s success in reducing Amazon deforestation by nearly 80 percent while at the same time increasing agricultural production in that region shows that it can be done,” Zarin added. “And Brazil can do even more to lead—if that is what Brazilians want.”

Brazil still ranks first among all tropical countries for carbon emissions from tropical deforestation, but it also achieved the biggest reduction in those emissions over a ten-year period. In 2003, deforestation in Brazil was responsible for emitting 1.766 gigatonnes of carbon—a similar amount to Russia’s 2013 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and the manufacture of cement—but only 0.428 gigatonnes in 2012. Brazil’s emissions from gross deforestation accounted for 20 percent of the tropical total in 2012, a huge decrease from the peak of 69 percent in 2003.

“Brazil’s historic success is built on a combination of public policy changes, transparency, improved law enforcement and voluntary actions in the private sector,” said Tasso Azevedo, a study co-author and a forest and climate change expert based in Brazil.

From Brazil to Indonesia and Elsewhere

After Brazil, Indonesia has the second highest greenhouse gas emissions from gross deforestation. Those emissions peaked in 2012 in Indonesia but declined in 2013, most likely due to the combined influence of a downturn in commodity prices and new governmental and private sector policies.

The study’s calculations don’t account for emissions from the recent fires that have burned millions of hectares in Indonesia this year, creating the worst public health crisis there since the 2004 tsunami, and adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than an entire year’s worth of Japan’s emissions. But the study also notes the possibility of real progress in the Indonesian government’s response to those fires.

“Earlier this year, Indonesia’s president extended a moratorium of new licenses on peat and primary forest to reduce deforestation, and recently called for all new peatland development to immediately cease while all exiting licenses on peatland are reviewed,” said study co-author Belinda A. Margono, a remote sensing specialist and deforestation analyst. “The government plans to implement a major peatland restoration effort in an attempt to ensure that the conditions that allowed for this year’s catastrophic fires do not arise in the future.”

Indonesia was also one of 15 tropical countries that signed the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) last year, which includes the goal of halving natural forest loss by 2020. In addition to the challenge that Indonesia faces in achieving that reduction, the other 14 countries collectively almost doubled their carbon emissions from tropical deforestation, from 12 percent of the total in 2001 to 23 percent in 2013. Of these 14 countries, the biggest contributors were the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru; Vietnam and Liberia also had significant increases. Only Mexico dropped significantly. The study also reported a similar increase in deforestation in the larger group of tropical countries that did not sign the Declaration.

Setting the Bar

The study sets a “pantropical” benchmark for annual carbon emissions from tropical deforestation as the average between 2001 and 2013: 2.270 gigatonnes of carbon, more than India’s economy-wide 2013 emissions.
“For the first time scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center have generated a high resolution data set of pantropical carbon density and associated uncertainty that exactly matches the spatial resolution of the deforestation estimates,” said Alessandro Baccini, a co-author of the study. “This provides for more accurate and consistent estimates of tropical forest carbon emissions.”

Halving these emissions by 2020 would require a reduction to 1.135 gigatonnes per year. The study proposes two illustrative scenarios for achieving such a reduction:

1. Brazil maintains its 2012 level, the NYDF signatory countries cut their deforestation emissions in half and the remaining 86 tropical forest countries reduce their collective emissions by 35 percent.

2. Brazil reduces its gross deforestation emissions even further than the 2012 level through various feasible measures, NYDF countries halve their deforestation emissions and the remaining 86 tropical forest countries reduce theirs by four percent.

“The first scenario is a lot harder for a lot of the world’s poorest countries to achieve,” said Tasso Azevedo. “The second scenario is very plausible for Brazil. We need to build on the success of the past decade and really capitalize on the huge potential to intensify agricultural production on lands that have already been cleared rather than cutting down forests. Brazilian scientists know how to do this.”

The report acknowledges that halving gross tropical deforestation emissions in five years is an immense challenge. “Market failures and governance failures are the problem,” says Zarin. “Forests are cut down because someone profits from selling the wood, or the cattle or crops that are grown on the deforested land, or from speculating in poorly regulated land markets. But the very real losses that deforestation incurs aren’t counted against those profits, and it’s not only carbon emissions.”

“Agricultural regions and urban centers lose the benefits forests provide to the hydrological cycle. The biodiversity losses alone are incalculable. We casually consume products with ingredients grown in faraway lands from which indigenous peoples and other local communities were only recently evicted—or worse—to make way for the chainsaws and the bulldozers that turn forests into vast monocultural fields for commodity manufacture. These are crimes in which we are all complicit.”

He added that reducing gross deforestation would provide public benefits on a local, national and global level. “It makes sense for the international community to support forest countries that show real leadership. Many countries and corporations have already agreed to halve deforestation by 2020, and to eliminate deforestation from commodity production. Now we have robust benchmarks against which progress can be measured. There are always excuses for inaction, but the time for excuses has run out.”

[1] Deforestation identified here is gross. Gross deforestation is the annual loss of forest, without accounting for regeneration or reforestation. This reflects the way that Brazil reports annually on Amazon deforestation. This is in contrast to net deforestation, which measures the annual difference between gross forest loss and regeneration/reforestation. FAO data generally report net deforestation. Note: below ground biomass and soil carbon are excluded from this analysis.

Link to abstract »

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