Q+A: Why are forests central to the climate fight?

LONDON Mon Nov 15, 2010 10:56pm EST

LONDON (Reuters) - The world's remaining tropical forests are at the center of attention like never before.

Rich nations such as Norway and the United States have pledged billions of dollars to help poorer nations set aside large areas of forest to fight climate change by soaking up heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

But with the world's population heading for nine billion, forests face equal pressure from mining, agriculture, timber and pulp firms eager to meet the voracious demands from an ever expanding global economy. The race is on to place a new value on forests to drive governments and companies to put the brakes on deforestation.

Following are some questions and answers on the issue.

WHY ARE FORESTS IMPORTANT?

Cutting down and burning forests, particularly carbon-rich peat swamp forests, is responsible for 12 to 17 percent of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions, studies say.

Scientists say rising greenhouse gas emissions are causing sea levels to rise and more extreme weather.

The United Nations says halting forest loss is crucial to curbing the pace of climate change since the more forest land is preserved or rehabilitated, the more carbon from power stations, transport and industry is soaked up and locked away.

Forests are also being increasingly valued for the services they provide economies, such as cleaning the air, acting as watersheds for rivers and as vast storehouses of species that can lead to new medicines and crops.

Nations agreed last month at environment talks in Japan to at least halve the rate of deforestation by 2020 and to ensure the financial benefits of forests are included into national accounts within a decade.

WHAT STEPS ARE NATIONS TAKING?

At U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen last year, the United States, Norway, Japan and other rich nations pledged $3.5 billion to fund steps between 2010 and 2012 to ramp up a U.N.-backed forest preservation scheme called REDD.

Reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation are aimed at rewarding poorer nations that set aside, manage and restore forests and measure the carbon they lock away. A global trade in forest carbon offsets could potentially be worth $30 billion a year, the United Nations says, with a portion of the money flowing to local communities.

But worries over managing the money, corruption, lack of resources and institutions in many poorer nations and absence of a global market are holding back investors.

Public money from rich nations is bridging the gap, with more than $4 billion now pledged via an interim REDD partnership created in May this year to guide how the money is spent, build institutions and develop pilot projects.

WHAT'S THE CURRENT DEFORESTATION RATE?

Globally, forests covering an area about the size of England, or around 13 million hectares, were lost to agriculture and other uses or destroyed by natural causes each year between 2000 and 2010, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said last month.

During the 1990s, it was about 16 million hectares per year.

Brazil and Indonesia have slowed their rates of deforestation, with Brazil in particular allocating forests for local communities and conservation. Large-scale reforestation programs in China, India and Vietnam have also boosted forest cover, while millions of hectares have been cut down in Africa.

WHAT ARE THE COSTS OF DOING NOTHING?

The 2008 Eliasch Review for the British government estimates that doing nothing to halt deforestation could lead to climate change costs to the global economy of $1 trillion a year by 2100.

It says reducing deforestation rates significantly needed large sums but that even taking this into account, the net benefits of halving deforestation could amount to $3.7 trillion over the long term.

In 2006, the Stern Review found that the opportunity cost of forest protection in eight countries responsible for 70 per cent of emissions from land use could be around $5 billion per annum initially, making forest protection among the cheapest options to fight climate change.

(Editing by Ed Lane)