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Mark Shwartz, News Service (650) 723-9296; e-mail:

Stanford study supports novel rainforest protection plan

"Save the Rainforest" could become more than just a slogan if a bold conservation plan is hammered out by United Nations negotiators meeting in Germany next week.

That's the underlying message from a new study on rainforest preservation co-authored by researchers from Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology.

Writing in the June 9 issue of the journal Science, the authors provide data supporting a U.N. proposal that would give rich nations an economic incentive to finance tropical forest conservation programs in poor countries.

Logging is only one threat facing Madagascar’s rainforests, says biologist Claire Kremen. After timber companies leave, taking most of the profits with them, itinerant farmers travel on logging roads to slash and burn the remaining forest, leading to further destruction. Scientists estimate that only about 10 percent of Madagascar’s original forests still exist.
Photo courtesy of Claire Kremen.

The innovative plan, known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), would have the primary goal of helping protect the entire planet from the ravages of global warming, according to the Science report.

"For once we have the opportunity to have a win-win situation," says Claire Kremen, a senior scientist with the Stanford center and lead author of the Science study.

"So often in conservation," she notes, "there are two opponents pitted against one another -- one wants conservation, the other wants development. Here we have a situation where economic interests and conservation can go hand in hand."

Kyoto summit

The CDM plan was first proposed at the 1997 United Nations summit on climate change in Kyoto, Japan. The goal of the summit was to prevent global warming by requiring industrialized nations to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and gasoline-burning vehicles.

Accumulation of these gases in the air prevents solar heat from escaping the atmosphere, which causes the Earth's temperature to increase.

Lemurs are primates found only on Madagascar and the neighboring Comoro Islands. About 30 species are known, including the nocturnal rufous mouse lemur – one of the smallest species weighing only 2 to 3 ounces.
Photo courtesy of P. Guillery.

Unless there is a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions in the next 50 years, the Earth could undergo a catastrophic climate change, according to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

"The resulting likely temperature rises will have grave consequences such as a rise in sea levels, unpredictability in the supply of fresh water and the wholesale loss of important ecosystems and biodiversity," say UNEP forecasters.

As the Earth heats up, according to many climatologists, severe floods and droughts could cause billions of dollars in damage to crops and property worldwide.

In 1996, global greenhouse gas emissions reached a new high of about 24 billion tons -- nearly four times the 1950 level, according to a UNEP study.

A year later in Kyoto, industrialized countries agreed to cut average, worldwide carbon emissions to 5 percent below 1990 CO2 levels. These cutbacks are supposed to go into effect in the next eight to 12 years once the Kyoto Protocol has been ratified.

'Carbon credits'

Because the United States and Europe produce more than 60 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, their governments have agreed in principle to make the biggest CO2 reductions.

The CDM proposal was designed to help these industrialized countries meet their carbon-reduction goals by giving them "carbon credits." Under this unique plan, a government could receive credit toward its CO2-emissions target by paying for non-polluting projects in a developing country.

For example, the United States has set a CO2-reduction goal of 7 percent by 2008. Under CDM, the United States would be allowed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by a combination of domestic and foreign initiatives, such as helping install wind farms, solar plants or other sources of clean energy in a developing country.

According to recent studies, about two-thirds of CO2-emissions comes from the burning of oil, coal and natural gas.

But another 20 to 30 percent is produced by tropical deforestation. That's because rainforest trees are about 50 percent carbon, so burning a rainforest can release more than 80 tons of CO2 gas per acre into the atmosphere.

For that reason, the United States and many other countries have endorsed a proposal to include protection of tropical rainforests in the United Nations CDM program.

The proposal, which also is supported by some conservation groups, would allow wealthy countries to receive carbon credits for financing projects that stop deforestation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"That would really be exciting," says John-O Niles, staff scientist with the Center for Conservation Biology and co-author of the June 9 Science report.

"Designed carefully, it's potentially a powerful new way to finance sustainable development and protect rainforests," Niles adds. "The beauty of the CDM is that it can be set up so that carbon credits are only granted after long-term rainforest conservation can be proven. Satellites and other technologies can verify that forests are actually being protected."

But according to Niles, some countries, including Brazil, object to the proposal to include forest conservation in the CDM -- an issue that will be hotly debated at the next round of U.N. negotiations in Bonn, Germany, on June 12.

"World leaders will gather this summer to decide how to set the rules for cutting back on the gases that cause global warming," notes Kremen. "Yet a number of countries want to leave forests out of the bargain.

"Our study shows that such a move would not only be harmful to the creatures of the forests, but that protecting forests is one of the cheapest ways to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and provide sustainable employment for people living nearby."

Madagascar example

In their Science study, Kremen, Niles and their colleagues note that more than 32 million acres of tropical forest are destroyed annually by logging or "slash and burn" farming -- an area about the size of North Carolina.

As a result, at least 14,000 species of plants and wildlife disappear every year, according to the authors. They point out that rapid deforestation also has devastating consequences for the people who depend on rainforests for food, medicine and shelter.

But the authors point to the Masoala National Park in the African country of Madagascar as a case study in how to protect a tropical forest by providing strong economic incentives on local, national and global scales.

"In Madagascar, local people live close to the land and depend on it for many resources," says Kremen, who helped establish the park.

"While Americans go to the supermarket or hardware store," she adds, "the Malagasy people of Madagascar go to the rainforest to search for more than 100 species of plants and animals that provide them with essential food, medicine, construction and weaving materials."

According to the Stanford study, these "renewable ecosystem goods" are worth more than $1 million a year to the 8,000 households living near Masoala.

Kremen points out that the park also brings in ecotourism dollars and provides other benefits to local people, such as stabilizing erosion and water flow to prevent downstream flooding and sedimentation of rice paddies and fish nurseries.

On a global scale, the study shows that protecting Masoala park could generate hundreds of millions of dollars simply from the "avoided damages" of greenhouse gas release, such as severe flooding.

According to Kremen, keeping the Masoala forest intact helps prevent global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the same way that buying a more fuel-efficient car does.

National tragedy

While preserving Masoala park has long-term economic benefits, the government of Madagascar may prefer to cash in on the huge profits offered by international timber corporations.

"At a national level," says Kremen, "Madagascar can make more money now from sacrificing these incredible forests to logging companies than by protecting them.

"Their loss would be a tragedy," she warns, "not only because of the climate- change implications, but also because of the fabulous and unique plants and animals that would vanish from this ancient rainforest," including endangered species of lemurs, geckos, butterflies and insects.

According to the Stanford study, the Madagascar government nearly abandoned the Masoala National Park project in favor of a logging company, but pressure from conservationists and diplomats helped persuade the government to reject the loggers' proposals.

"Without this pressure," write the authors, "the Masoala Peninsula, one of Madagascar's most import reservoirs of biodiversity, would perhaps have become a forestry concession instead of a national park."

Today the World Bank is paying Madagascar around $16 an acre to protect Masoala -- a relatively inexpensive amount, say the authors, given the huge economic and environmental benefits of rainforest conservation.

According to Kremen, there is a solution to the disparity between national and global benefits from conservation.

"If the CDM provision for financing carbon conservation projects is included in the Kyoto Protocol," she maintains, "then a powerful economic mechanism will finally exist for protecting tropical rainforests, their climate-mitigation properties, and their biodiversity. The Stanford study shows that the global value from carbon storage would be more than ample to compensate Madagascar for lost timber sales.

"Ultimately, people at local, national and global levels could all benefit from conservation, and, certainly, so could the world's embattled wildlife," she concludes, noting that "far-sighted countries such as Costa Rica and Norway have already jointly begun carbon-trading projects."

U.N. representatives will meet in The Hague, Netherlands, next November to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Until then, delegates will be negotiating everything from carbon emissions to carbon credits, beginning in Bonn on June 12.

"Negotiators from around the world people who really care about climate change and deforestation have many challenges to overcome," says Niles, "but I'm confident we can get good, strict rules in place. This could create a new paradigm where there are market incentives for countries to preserve these important ecosystems for future generations."

The Science article is co-authored by Gretchen Daily, Paul Ehrlich and John Fay of the Stanford Center for Conservation Biology; M. Dalton of the California State University, Monterey Bay; D. Grewal of Yale Law School; and R. P. Guillery of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.


By Mark Shwartz

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