The Copenhagen climate talks may have been a flop, but there was one piece of good news: a plan for rich states to pay the developing world to stop destroying tropical forests. That's key because deforestation represents about 15 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions--more than all the world's cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. While countries couldn't agree on binding targets, it was the first time they had made halting deforestation central to the fight against climate change.
The agreement followed new evidence showing that deforestation can actually be slowed and, in some cases, reversed--which runs counter to longstanding predictions that nothing could stop the process and that eradication of the world's tropical forests was all but inevitable. In 2009 Brazil, long the world's worst offender, saw its pace of jungle-clearing plummet to a third of its historical rate. That's due in part to the recession, as falling commodity prices made clear-cutting for timber or soybean farms less profitable. But Brazil has also stepped up protection efforts, and is reaping the benefits of socioeconomic change and rising living standards, which have led to a decline in subsistence farming. As the bulk of destruction shifts to big agro, not millions of individual farmers, it has become easier for governments and NGOs to target perpetrators--just what Brazil has done. After they became the focus of a global protest campaign last year, Nike and Wal-Mart stopped sourcing their leather from Amazon cattle farmers.
The plausibility of reforestation also got a recent a boost from several studies showing that some tropical forests have bounced back on once-cleared land after farmers abandoned it to move to the cities. Biologists long believed that such "secondary forests" were nearly worthless because they regenerated slowly and offered little of the biodiversity of their old-growth predecessors. But evidence from Costa Rica and Panama shows that tropical forests can recover up to 90 percent of their original biodiversity in as little as 20 years. What's more, there may be many more of these fast-regrowing areas than previously assumed, according to another study by Alan Grainger, forest biologist at Leeds University, and protecting them could do as much to cut emissions as preserving old-growth jungle. According to McKinsey & Co., protecting and restoring forest is a much cheaper way to cut CO2 than, say, switching to renewable energy: $1 spent on forest measures buys as great a CO2 reduction as $6 invested in emerging technologies, such as solar power. Already, Western governments have pledged to pay developing countries $3.5 billion for forest projects.
None of this denies the alarming pace of destruction still going on, especially in Indonesia and other parts of Asia. But for the first time, the world seems to be getting serious about stopping it--and might just put its money where its trees are.