10 Reasons, 5 Years: What’s Changed about Deforestation

June 30, 2014 | 3:09 pm
Doug Boucher
Former contributor

From time to time we take a look at things we published several years ago, to see whether they’re still up to date. We often need to decide whether to reprint them as is, revise them first, or simply decide to stop using them. This requires figuring out whether the information they contain is still valid, or has become somewhat obsolete in light of new science and recent political developments.

We’ve just done this with a short fact sheet originally published in 2009. It was called “Protecting Trees, Protecting Our Climate: Ten Reasons to Invest in Reducing Tropical Deforestation.” We decided to update it, and the experience got me thinking about how our approach to deforestation—and what’s happening on the ground—have changed significantly in just five years.

A lot of things haven’t changed, either in the fact sheet or in reality. The science showing  the importance of deforestation to global warming is just a strong as before. Reducing deforestation is still one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce global warming pollution, with many other benefits to the economy, to biodiversity, and to the livelihoods of forest peoples. And the tenth point—“Addressing deforestation shows we are serious about our future”—is a perennial truth.


Rainforest being cleared for palm oil plantation. Source: Paul Hilton.Rainforest being cleared for palm oil plantation. Source: Paul Hilton.

But a few important things are different. One is the percentage of the world’s greenhouse emissions that come from deforestation. In the 2009 version of the fact sheet, we presented this number as “about 15 percent.” The new edition says “about 10 percent.” Why the change?

Part of the reason for this new figure, which comes both from UCS analyses last year and from the most recent IPCC report, is that important countries have made progress in reducing their deforestation rates—most notably, Brazil. Some of the change comes from new consensus on the estimates, too. But a lot of what has reduced the percentage is actually bad news. It’s the fact that the denominator of this fraction—the total, global emissions from all sectors, most of which is from fossil fuels—has continued to go up.

Some other modifications relate to the effective implementation over the past five years of programs that were only proposals five years ago. Thus, in the 2009 version we wrote that

“Brazil, for example, has passed national climate legislation that will reduce the country’s deforestation-related emissions 80 percent by 2020.”

 In the new version, we could say that

“Brazil, for example, has implemented policies that reduced its deforestation-related emissions by two-thirds in just six years.”

Similarly, five years ago we needed to use the verb “proposed” to describe the “pay for performance” system under which tropical countries reduce emissions from deforestation and receive compensation once they’ve accomplished it. Now, we can validly say that they “are implementing” these kinds of approaches.

Other things have changed that don’t show up in the fact sheet’s wording, but are just as important. In 2009—with the Copenhagen climate negotiations approaching and the Waxman-Markey climate legislation pending in Congress—our strategy emphasized government actions, both internationally and domestically. Our goal was for tropical deforestation provisions to be part of the international agreement and the U.S. climate legislation that we hoped were about to be agreed on.

Well, those things didn’t happen. So we’ve changed our strategy, at least for the short term. We have been working with businesses—most notably those using palm oil, one of the main drivers of deforestation—to get them to commit to zero deforestation throughout their supply chains. And in the past year, we’ve gotten those commitments from some very important international corporations—Kellogg, General Mills, Colgate-Palmolive, Proctor and Gamble, and several more.

Ultimately, it’s going to take broad action on energy, replacing fossil fuels with renewables, to prevent the worst consequence of climate change—not just an end to tropical deforestation. But the recent successes of tropical countries, and the commitments of major businesses, are encouraging signs. Our hope is that they’re signs of things to come, so that in five more years, we’ll be able to say that the world is finally taking climate change seriously and the role of deforestation in causing greenhouse gas emissions is even smaller.