In order to stave off the worst consequences of climate change, governments from around the world agreed half a decade ago that carbon emissions had to be reduced enough to keep global temperatures from climbing more than two degrees Celsius. This week, a new study from an international team of researchers presents one roundabout way for the global community to reach that goal: cutting carbon emissions from deforestation in the tropics in half by 2020.
With an eye on the tropical countries with the largest share of carbon emissions from deforestation—namely, Brazil, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malaysia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Mexico—the researchers looked at gross deforestation rates, or the total amount of wooded area converted to non-forested land, throughout the tropics. The team then converted those biomass losses to estimates of carbon dioxide emissions.
"A decade ago, the deforestation reductions that Brazil has already achieved were unimaginable."
Every year between 2001 and 2013, deforestation in the tropics released an average of 2.270 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the authors reported yesterday in Global Change Biology. From there, the researchers determined that, in order to halve emissions, the regions' top emitters would need to cap the yearly release of carbon dioxide at 1.135 gigatonnes.
Brazil still holds the title as the largest carbon emitter in the region, but the country also achieved the largest emissions reductions in the 10 years preceding 2013, dropping down from releasing 69 percent of the total tropical deforestation emissions in 2003 to just 20 percent of the tropical total in 2012. If Brazil's emission levels hold at the 2012 levels, and Indonesia and the 14 other tropical countries that agreed to make cutting deforestation a priority at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit cut their emissions by half, the emissions target of 1.135 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year could be reached—as long as the 86 other tropical forest countries that didn't sign on to specifically reduce deforestation in 2014 still cut their emissions by 35 percent.
But if Brazil cuts its emissions in half again, which the authors believe can be achieved by doubling down on the strategies used to reach its current emissions rates—providing incentives for curtailing deforestation, slashing the rate of illegal deforestation, and encouraging companies to commit to supply chains that don't cause forest loss—then the 86 tropical countries that didn't sign on to downsize deforestation would only have to collectively cut emissions by four percent.
The authors acknowledge that these cuts are by no means trivial, but contend that they are achievable given Brazil's success thus far. "A decade ago, the deforestation reductions that Brazil has already achieved were unimaginable," they write. But today, the emissions powerhouse has set the bar for action against climate change in tropical countries around the globe.
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