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21 Oct 07
Seeing the carbon for the trees
Protecting the world's remaining tropical forests will play a vital role in preventing dangerous climate change in the future, says Peter Seligmann. In this week's Green Room, he calls for a global system that offers nations an economic incentive to halt the destruction of the Earth's "lungs".
As Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf met US President George Bush at the White House last week, an expert from Liberia's Forestry Development Authority was across the river in a hi-tech laboratory, working on his country's potential involvement in a global strategy to confront climate change.
Augustine Johnson has been looking at ways to map and assess Liberia's remaining tropical forest and the carbon it stores.
If all goes according to plan, that carbon and the forest's ability to store it will become a valuable economic asset capable of bringing new revenue to the African country in desperate need of help to recover from civil war. The forests are already a valuable environmental asset for the whole planet.
Fifteen years have passed since Liberia and the US were among 190 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit.
Since then, Liberia has emerged from its long civil conflict, but economic recovery and widespread unemployment remain daunting challenges.
Climate change poses another major threat to Liberia and other developing countries. The anticipated impacts, such as rising sea levels and more severe droughts, will cause the most harm to the world's poorest people living in nations that lack the resources to help them adapt.
Liberia's greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 250,000 times lower than those of the US, yet its remaining forests store approximately four billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to the amount emitted by 57 million cars over 10 years.
Original forests are universally recognised as one of our planet's greatest natural resources because they provide jobs and sustenance for hundreds of millions of people.
They are nature's pharmacies and raw material factories, with unmatched biological diversity. They cleanse and restore water supplies, and they help prevent the spread of certain tropical diseases.
However, the amount of tropical forest our planet loses each year is one-and-a-half times the size of Liberia, releasing almost 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions - more than all the world's cars, trucks and planes combined.
Protect and preserve
Regulated carbon markets, recognised by the UNFCCC and mediated by Kyoto Protocol processes such as the Clean Development Mechanism, offer incentives to reduce methane from farming and landfill sites.
The markets also have programmes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the industrial sectors of emerging economies such as China and India.
Yet they lack any mechanism to reduce the emissions from cutting and burning the valuable tropical forests of developing countries.
At December's UN climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia, leaders from all countries can find common ground to ensure forest protection is included as a valid, direct and immediate action that generates measurable carbon credits.
President Johnson-Sirleaf has demonstrated Liberia is a serious partner. A year ago, her newly elected government enacted the Forest Reform Law as a bold step to manage these natural forest resources.
The legislation established 30% of its remaining forests as national protected areas. These biologically rich and unique forests comprise the most extensive forest coverage in West Africa, providing resources depended on by a large percentage of the nation's people.
However, rampant poverty poses a serious threat to the government's ambitious policy. Many people have little choice but to earn a living by logging or mining, sometimes within the forests that are protected by law.
Liberia and other developing countries should be able to benefit economically from protecting their forests for the long-term global good, rather than sacrificing them for short-term survival.
But this will require reliable and consistent economic incentives from many different financing sources, including carbon credits and economic development assistance.
It will also require political will from developed nations such as the US, Japan and EU member states. Investment will be needed to quantify the carbon savings from forestry protection, and to build technical capacity and expertise in the forestry programmes of developing countries.
And the corporate sector that buys carbon credits would have to be engaged and receptive to the concept.
Like many developing countries in tropical Africa, Latin America and Asia, Liberia possesses a vast wealth of biologically rich and globally important forests, despite its difficult economic circumstances.
By supporting this promising and courageous democracy with the right economic tools and technical assistance to protect these forests, we will not only be helping Liberia, but a global community facing the unprecedented challenge of climate change.
Peter A Seligmann is chairman and chief executive of Conservation International
The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
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