A major shortcoming of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change was its failure to address the huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the destruction of the world's rain forests. A proposal that rich nations be allowed to offset some of their emissions by paying poorer counties to leave their rain forests intact was shot down after European environmental groups objected. They argued that it would allow rich countries to buy their way out of their own obligations. The planet has been paying for that colossal blunder ever since.
Deforestation accounts for one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gases - about the same as China's emissions, more than the emissions generated by all of the world's cars and trucks. And the world is doing far too little to stop it. An estimated 30 million acres of rain forest disappear every year, destroying biodiversity and pouring billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The global warming bill now working its way through the House seeks to change this destructive dynamic in two ways. It sets up a carbon trading system that is expected to raise upward of $60 billion annually through the sale of pollution allowances. Five percent of that would be set aside to help prevent deforestation, either through a special international fund or as bilateral grants to poor countries.
In addition, the bill would allow for the kinds of offsets proposed and rejected in Kyoto, Japan. For example, a power company having trouble meeting its emissions limits could satisfy some of its obligations by paying to reduce deforestation elsewhere in the world.
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The economics make sense. It is a relatively inexpensive way for industrialized nations to get credit for reducing global emissions while they make the necessary investments to control their own pollution. And it is a good deal for poor countries. The World Bank estimates that an acre of rain forest converted to crops is worth $100 to $250. It's worth far more under a system that puts a value on carbon. An average acre stores about 200 tons of carbon; assuming a low price of $10 a ton, that acre is suddenly worth $2,000.
A big effort will still be required to resist the loggers, miners, ranchers and politicians who have had their way with the rain forests for years. And any plan must include safeguards and inspection mechanisms to ensure that the allowances and offsets are being used properly.
But with the rain forests shrinking and the planet warming up, it's crucial to get the right incentives in place - first as part of broad climate change legislation in the United States, then as part of a new global treaty that the world's nations hope to negotiate in the fall.