Value a forest, cool a planet

The true economic worth of trees isn't recognized. That has to change – and quickly.

Cutting forests is the third-largest source of climate-warming carbon emissions today, larger than the emissions produced by either the US or China. Including them in a "carbon market" is a tempting solution.

It comes down to this: Today, trees are worth more dead than alive. This despite the fact that they stash away billions of tons of carbon in their soil and themselves and constantly inhale more carbon from the atmosphere. They also help regulate the earth's climate in other ways, influencing rainfall patterns far away, including in the US. And they contain unique plant and animal life, the economic value of which is only beginning to be understood.

Yet no dollar figure is placed on these vital services. Instead, tropical forests are cut down in favor of enterprises such as palm oil plantations or cattle grazing, endeavors that make money here and now. It's easy to see why rain forests continue to disappear at an alarming rate.

A report to the British government this month suggests that the way to recognize the true value of forests is by including them in carbon markets. Polluters around the world could earn credits to offset their own carbon emissions by paying for forest preservation.

If developing countries earned credits for preserving forests, the pace of deforestation might be cut by 75 percent by 2030, the report says. Saving forests, in turn, could reduce the cost of cutting the world's greenhouse-gas emissions by half. Emissions need to shrink to 50 percent of their 1990 levels if the vital goal of keeping global warming to only 2 degrees C by the end of the century is to be met.

Britain's "Eliasch Review" – named after businessman Johan Eliasch, who has bought up some Amazon rain forest himself – also says that the world's forests should become "carbon neutral" by 2030, meaning that any deforestation still continuing would be balanced by the planting of new forests.

A carbon market, sometimes called a cap-and-trade plan, has been operating in Europe for several years, and a similar measure is expected to be enacted in the US under the next president. Such markets have inherent problems, though, including difficulty pricing credits properly when first issued and determining whether the carbon reductions being credited might have happened anyway. A tax on carbon is a more direct and effective way to decrease emissions.

Adding "avoided deforestation" to the mix of carbon credits raises questions of whether corrupt or incompetent governments in parts of the developing world would step on the needs of their own people in a rush to grab the money, or simply take the funds and still fail to protect their forests.

Adding forest-preservation credits could also wreak havoc with the carbon markets themselves, bringing down the value of the credits and ruining the market.

Talk of adding forest protection into carbon-market schemes does spotlight an important fact: Forests have a value that so far has not been fully reflected in the world economy. Until it is, trees will be cut in favor of other land use.

Nonprofit groups have worked tirelessly for years to preserve forests. But their efforts alone will never solve such an immense problem. Some means of recognizing the true economic and environmental value of the world's forests still must be found.

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