by Camille Cater


In the last 20 years, reducing deforestation in tropical forests has been looked to as a cost-effective method to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to combat the effects of global warming. Tropical rainforests are essential in sequestering excessive amounts of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels that drives human activity, and the widespread loss of this resource has exacerbated global warming. A study published by Jonah Busch and Jens Engelmann in December of 2017 presents potential emissions savings and avoided forest loss by implementing carbon markets and restrictive anti-deforestation policies in countries with tropical forests. Their findings conclude that a combination of these initiatives can significantly reduce future carbon emissions and associated consequences of a world without tropical rainforests.

In this study, Busch and Engelmann use satellite data of tropical forest loss from 2001 to 2012 to predict what would happen from 2013 to 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario with no significant change to deforestation rates, and in a scenario with implemented carbon markets and anti-deforestation policies. The projections estimated that if business continues as usual, 289 million hectares of tropical forest could be lost from 2013 to 2050, an area about the size of India. The associated emissions from this level of deforestation would release 169 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This would account for one sixth of the remaining planetary budget to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, an internationally agreed amount that must not be exceeded.

In contrast, projections of alternative forest conservation initiatives such as carbon prices and anti-deforestation policies show significant reductions in carbon emissions and deforestation. Carbon prices refer to one or a combination of taxes on carbon emissions, payments made for emissions reductions, or external international funding for emission reduction programs. Their study projects that a price of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide would prevent approximately 41 gigatons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere from 2013 to 2050. This would reduce the expected emissions in the business-as-usual scenario by one fourth.

Restrictive anti-deforestation public policies and private measures have been proven to significantly reduce carbon emissions and deforestation in Brazil in recent years. From 2004 to 2011 Brazil reduced emissions by creating new protected and indigenous land, satellite monitoring of illegal activity, reducing credit to high-deforesting farmers, and placing a moratorium on soy and cattle from recently deforested areas. The research determined that if all tropical forest countries could implement the same type of anti-deforestation policies with the same effectiveness, they could avoid about 58 gigatons of emissions from 2016 to 2050. This represents a 34% decrease in pan-tropical forest loss and the associated emissions.

Busch and Engelmann recommend from their findings that policymakers in countries with tropical rainforests should implement restrictive anti-deforestation policies and establish dynamic carbon markets to reduce global carbon emissions. They also found some other patterns in deforestation that can effectively guide future deforestation research, such as the U-shaped relationship between forest cover and forest loss. This relationship means that densely forested areas are more likely to be deforested as they become closer in proximity to other cleared land. As land is cleared, roads are laid down and access to densely forested areas in more readily available for logging, agriculture, or other land-use changes. They also found that the presence of deforestation is higher in low elevations and low slopes, outside of protected areas, areas close to cities, and in areas that stand to gain from agricultural revenue.

This study provides hope for tropical forests worldwide as these effective methods of reducing deforestation and carbon emissions becomes more readily available and put into action. It also reminds us of the utmost importance of conversation work in tropical forests for their immense value in combating climate change. Tropical forests are a critical part of the proper functioning of the planet, especially in vastly changing conditions that humans put it through. Viewed like this, tropical forests have the potential to save humans from ourselves. But only if we let them.


Source: Busch, J. and Engelmann, J. 2017. Environ. Res. Lett. 13 015001.