By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Feb 9 (Reuters) - The United States needs to take the lead in preserving tropical forests in the fight against climate change, a coalition of lawmakers, corporate chiefs and environmentalists said on Monday.
Deforestation accounts for 20 percent of the carbon emissions that spur global warming, members of the Avoided Deforestation Partners coalition told a Capitol Hill forum.
The U.S. Congress is expected to take up legislation this year — possibly as soon as this month — to tackle climate change, aiming to come up with policies that will help the United States and other countries forge a new international agreement to succeed the carbon-capping Kyoto Protocol.
"Without the leadership of the United States of America, everybody else will say, maybe this is not as serious as it seems," Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told the group. "If America is not concerned, then it cannot be a serious issue."
Maathai said three great tropical forests — the Amazon in South America, the Congo in Africa and the jungles of Southeast Asia — are the "lungs" of the world, acting to lock up vast amounts of carbon dioxide.
The coalition has been heartened by the Congress’ intentions on carbon-capping legislation, as well as the new administration of President Barack Obama, who campaigned on fighting climate change.
The Bush administration had been hostile to the Kyoto Protocol, saying it would put the United States at an economic disadvantage.
Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, and Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, both offered support to the call for U.S. leadership on deforestation, as did executives at American Electric Power, Duke Energy, Marriott International, CARE USA, The Nature Conservancy, Oxfam America and Conservation International.
Stuart Eizenstat, a former chief U.S. climate negotiator who worked on the Kyoto pact, said the focus on preserving tropical forests could help get developing countries involved in an international agreement on global warming.
One of the problems with the Kyoto Protocol is that fast-developing countries like China and India are not required to curb their emissions of greenhouse gases.
"This is a way of engaging developing countries who want to participate, who will make avoiding deforestation their contribution ... if they’re given the incentives to do so," Eizenstat said. (Editing by Bill Trott)