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Tropical forests: Will the U.S. ride to the rescue?

October 6, 2009 | 10:45 pm

Borneo

Saving the rain forest is no longer just about helping such countries as Brazil and Indonesia preserve their exotic fauna and flora. Now it is about benefiting American corporations too.

A report released today by a blue-ribbon panel estimates that if American companies invest about $9 billion by 2020 in preserving tropical forests in developing countries, they can save about $50 billion that they would have had to spend on cleaning up their own carbon dioxide emissions.

"It is one of the few major sources of emissions that can be addressed cost-effectively now," concludes the Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests, co-chaired by former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (D-R.I.) and John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, an energy think tank.

Left unsaid is that utilities and manufacturers who fiercely oppose federal climate legislation should see the writing on the wall: With the Earth heading toward dangerous levels of climate change, companies now have a chance to do well by doing good -- if they move fast.

Some 17% of global carbon dioxide pollution comes from burning forests and converting them to cattle ranches and soybean farms -- more than all the world's cars, trains and planes emit together.

 Climate legislation passed by the U.S. House in June includes provisions for international offsets, which could allow companies to pay for preserving forests in developing nations instead of buying expensive equipment to control all of their own emissions.

 Some environmental groups are critical of forest offsets, tarring them as a scheme to let corporations off the hook for cleaning up their own emissions. Others worry about bogus schemes claiming false preservation credits, since forest carbon is difficult to measure.

The 71-page report is timed to influence the U.S. Senate as it takes up climate legislation. It recommends that the U.S. government invest $1 billion in tropical forest preservation in the next three years. And it pushes to have tropical forest emissions included in a new international treaty to be considered in Copenhagen in December.

The 16-member commission includes former Sen. Chuck Hagel, former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan, as well as business and environmental representatives.

California moved ahead earlier this month, adopting complex rules for regulating and verifying forest carbon in the voluntary carbon market. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has launched cooperative agreements with Brazil and Indonesia and other forest-rich nations to provide technical expertise with a view toward opening the state's planned cap-and-trade market to tropical forest offset programs.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: A gibbon in Borneo's tropical forest, which is under pressure from logging, fire and palm oil plantations. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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