Q&A: Poor Progress on Forests

It's not news that the rain forests are imperiled, but recent studies suggest that they may be in for a steeper decline that previously thought. That would be catastrophic not only because of the diversity that would be lost but also because it would add greatly to the problem of global warming by releasing billions of tons of carbon held by plants and trees. As the United Nations begins climate-change talks in Bali this week, forests will be on the agenda. But progress is being made too slowly says Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington. Lovejoy, a renowned expert on rainforests, has served as chief biodiversity adviser to the World Bank and senior adviser to the president of the United Nations. He spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Jesse Ellison about the state of the world's forests, the Bali conference and why we should be optimistic about global warming. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What should people understand about the current state of the world's forests?
Thomas Lovejoy:
I think most people are unaware that deforestation plays such a big role in building up greenhouse-gas concentrations, that literally the third and fourth emitting nations in the world—Indonesia and Brazil—are on that list because of deforestation. In any given year, the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 20 percent from deforestation.

Why is so much attention paid to Hummers and energy consumption and little notice paid to this?
Well I wouldn't want to diminish the attention to the energy side of it, because each year it gets bigger, and as it gets bigger it can outstrip the forest piece of it. But people don't understand a lot about the whole generation of greenhouse gases, and they've now sort of gotten that it comes from the burning of fossil fuels. If they stopped and thought about it, fossil fuels are nothing but old forests and old plants.

Should forests be on the agenda at the Bali conference?
There are three things that should be on the agenda. One is how to be bold about addressing climate change. Everything that's been done so far is relatively trivial compared to the problems. Two, I would hope that people would be sensible enough to see the signs in the United States of change at the state level and at the corporate level and recognize that that will translate into national change after January 2009 and that America will again be in the game. The third thing is that the time is at hand for a great global bargain on forests in which the industrialized nations, who have created most of the greenhouse-gas problems to date, will assist the developing tropical-forest nations in maintaining their forest cover in a way that's also conducive to economic development.

Brazil and Indonesia are resisting these discussions on grounds of national sovereignty and the belief that they shouldn't have to forfeit economic benefits that developed nations have already enjoyed. Do you think that Brazilians and Indonesians and others will change their position in Bali?
I don't expect huge progress on Bali, and I'm very disappointed that [there] isn't going to be huge progress. But the Brazilians have opened the door to discussions. In the Amazon, you have two or three states that are very interested in carbon payments for maintaining forests. And a similar thing is occurring in Indonesia. There are two governors in Indonesia that are really interested in this possibility. In a way, it's not too different from some of our payments in the farm bill in which people are paid to put land in the conservation reserve. They earn money to do something that's publicly useful. I sort of look at it as equivalent to the Schwarzenegger California kind of leadership, foreshadowing where we're going to go. What often happens in this country is when things stall at a federal level, you'll get initiatives at the state level, and they'll be different from state to state. And then finally industry will scream that we need some national standard. And then the logjam, if I may use the phrase, will clear.

If the local communities in Brazil and Indonesia are amenable to these agreements, why isn't there greater cooperation at the national level?
I think it's because they really haven't figured out yet that half the rain in Brazil--in São Paolo and the industrial areas--comes from the Amazon. Once they realize that all that economic activity is imperiled by deforestation, they're going to think very differently. I don't think it's sunk in yet.

How would the international community effectively protect forests if avoiding deforestation becomes an official part of the next phase of the Kyoto accords?
Central to it all is that the funds don't just go into black boxes and black holes in national treasuries but rather get out into the forests and support local people.

Brazil says it can protect the Amazon even as it develops the region with riverways, roads and hydroelectric power plants. Isn't that a contradiction?
It is a serious challenge because the history of all of that almost always leads to deforestation. So serious enforcement of these infrastructure plans and their implications or how they might be carried out is essential. Some of it probably is a contradiction, at least as currently planned. There's yet to be a road in the Amazon that doesn't lead to uncontrolled deforestation. It's a classic governmental schizophrenia. They think they can build a road that will just carry stuff back and forth and nothing will happen to the forest.

You said you're already disappointed in the Bali conference. Why?
I thought it was the moment to try for the great forest bargain, and I don't see that happening. It will only be the beginning of a discussion. If Brazil and Indonesia were coming to Bali planning to push for something like that as opposed to just starting a discussion, then it might have happened.

So you're not optimistic about Bali, but are you optimistic about the larger situation?
Well, you have to be optimistic, otherwise you don't try hard enough. I think we're playing a very dangerous game these days. The sooner we get deeply serious and get bold about it, the better it will be.