In the past year, examples abounded of forests being protected or restored on a grand scale. But those successes put the colossal failures and the corrupting forces behind them in stark relief: For too many forests, some combination of rapacious corporate greed, rising global population and consumption (particularly in Asia), local corruption, ignorant or careless political leadership and a lack of a strong grassroots environmental movement overwhelmed forest defenders — leading to destruction of some of the most biodiverse, carbon-dense forests in the world.

The bright contrast showed that deforestation is no ways inevitable — in many cases, the same countries are winning great conservation victories in one area and proving their capacity for senseless destruction in another. In that spirit, here are some of the big trends and decisions to look out for in 2012:

Can Brazil tolerate success?

Brazil has been the world’s great success story when it comes to reducing deforestation, and 2011 was no different. Continuing a seven-year trend, Brazil cleared and burned the Amazon at the lowest level on record in 2011. While that’s still 6,238 square kilometers of forests (an area the size of Delaware) wiped away during the year, it represents a whopping three-quarters decline since 2004. To put that in American climate terms, it’s as if the United States cut its coal and oil consumption to one-quarter of the current level by 2020.

At the same time that Brazil is achieving this major conservation success, the country has continued to boost soy and cattle production every year — proving that it doesn’t need to cut down the forest to grow economically. Indeed, the restrictions on deforestation themselves seem to be helping generate growth in the agricultural sector. Historically, cattle ranching in Brazil has been negatively profitable — that is, a money-losing sector (somewhat like the American airline industry). But since Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation, and others rallied consumers for deforestation-free soy and cattle, Brazilian producers responded: instead of investing in clear-cutting, cattle and soy operations have focused on improving yields and profitability on existing land — and restoring degraded land to forest or agricultural use. Now instead of just making cattle, Brazilians are also making money. Indeed, buoyed by the agricultural sector, the country’s overall economy is booming to such an extent that large numbers of newly rich are flooding Miami and Europe in search of luxury goods.

But that economic success — and Brazilians’ very strong pro-environment attitudes — haven’t stopped a backlash by well-financed cattle gangs and illegal logging cartels. These interests have pushed the Brazilian Congress to gut Brazil’s strong Forest Code, the primary legal instrument behind the success in reducing deforestation. To show they’re serious, thugs hired by some big agriculture and logging interests have launched an assassination campaign on the agricultural frontier, gunning down indigenous and peasant activists who dared to try to make them obey the law. This summer, for instance, thugs assassinated four rainforest activists in the Amazon, including the internationally known leader Joao da Silva and his wife. When their deaths were announced on the floor of the Brazilian congress, pro-deforestation delegates erupted into a chorus of boos — not because they were upset with the murder, but because they were offended that one of their fellow members would bring such a crime into the light of day.

So what would prompt parliamentarians to act so abominably? The Code currently requires landowners to keep 80 percent of their land in the Amazon forested, and a minimum of 20 percent in the biodiversity rich savannah known as the Cerrado. It also requires protection for forests bordering rivers and streams. But under the revisions passed on Dec. 6, people who’ve violated the Code in the past will get effective amnesty for their actions — not being required to reforest their land to come into compliance; owners of less than 998 acres will be exempted from the main provisions of the code; and the amount of forest required to be protected along waterways will be cut. Despite a provision giving more enforcement power to environmental agency Ibama, WWF estimates that these revisions will reduce forest cover in Brazil by 295,000 square miles, an area larger than Texas — and prevent Brazil from meeting its international commitments to cut carbon pollution.

Now, one woman stands between the gangs and ecological catastrophe: Brazil’s recently elected President Dilma Rouseff, who has the power to veto the legislation. Dilma promised to oppose amnesty during the 2010 presidential election, but is facing strong pressure from monied deforestation interests to break her promises. Were she to uphold her promises, however, she can count on the Brazilian people for support: 79 percent of Brazilians want Dilma to veto the legislation, according to a recent poll — and environmentalists proved their strength at the polls in 2010 when Green Party candidate Marina Silva landed 19 percent of the vote, forcing Dilma into a runoff.

This may be the biggest environmental decision of any kind in the world in 2011, with enormous consequences for the planet. In climate terms alone, passage of this bill would spew more carbon into the atmosphere than all the world generates in one year. It’s a real test for the Brazilian environmental movement, which can count on stronger popular support than almost any country in the world — but now needs to leverage that support into a substantive victory. With a well-run campaign targeting Dilma, the Forest Code could become what the Keystone XL pipeline has been to the American environmental movement. Indeed, a heavy emphasis on mobilizing the grassroots to take their demand for forests directly to Dilma and her campaign backers is likely to be the only thing that can prevail against the well-financed deforestation interests.

Carbon offshoring: forest edition

During the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong ordered the Chinese to clear the country’s once-expansive, and occasionally panda-filled forests for agriculture and fuel to run backyard steel furnaces. The furnaces, unfortunately, could not actually produce steel (perhaps the 20th century’s first big biomass failure) and the lack of trees, of course, produced huge problems: erosion, flooding, lack of rainfall, and desertification. China still loses 15,000 square kilometers every year to desert.

To stem the tide, the country is building a “Great Green Wall” reaching from Xinzhang in the West to Heilongjiang on the Pacific coast. Every Chinese child above the age of 11 is required to plant at least three trees a year, and the country has planted 56 billion since the program was launched in 1978. Although China has paid little attention to actually ensuring that the trees grow and thrive, and hasn’t always chosen the native species adapted to local water conditions and wildlife, there are a lot of new forests. Combined with a series of domestic logging bans, the reforestation effort does seem to be achieving some of its goals.

Domestic conservation notwithstanding, China is still hungry for wood and paper, as well as commodities like palm oil, beef, and soybeans that can come from deforestation. And so far, China hasn’t seemed to care that much about whether those appetites lead someone else to cut down their own forests (a similar process is playing out in India, where the government has set 2012 as the goal date for restoring one-third of the country to forest, but turns a blind eye as Indian companies import goods from deforestation).

So they’ve turned — en masse — to rainforest nations and other ecologically sensitive regions to supply their needs. China has become the “wood workshop of the world” and set up or financed illegal logging operations in Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, and Russia to feed its demand. More than half of timber shipped anywhere in the world is sent to China, as reported by William Laurance in an important article in Yale Environment 360.

In Southeast Asia, Chinese companies like Julong, Indian companies like KS Oils, and multinationals like Bunge have bought up hundreds of thousands of acres of “land banks” in Borneo and Sumatra for conversion to palm plantations. In Africa, Chinese companies are logging the Congo and an Indian company, Karuturi Global Limited is tearing up forest, wetlands and savannah to grow hundreds of thousands of acres of roses for global markets in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region that is the site of Africa’s second largest wildlife migration, according to another must-read Yale Environment 360 article, this one by Fred Pearce.

Of course, deforestation is messy and often illegal — and that has led to a global political push by shadowy front groups to undermine even developed countries’ international forest protections. Of course, there are examples in tropical countries like Indonesia where someone or something caused the man formerly known as “Indonesia’s green governor” Irwandi Yusuf to suddenly change his mind and approve converting a 4,000 hectare peatland rainforest in Aceh known for its orangutans, bears, and tigers into a palm oil plantation. It’s just one example of the palm and timber industries undermining Indonesia’s much trumpeted moratorium on forest conversion (though overall the moratorium may produce some progress).

In the United States, several Tea Party organizations have suddenly aligned their entire agendas with those of Asian companies who profit from illegal logging and palm oil. These groups have reframed the commercial agenda of Asian logging and palm oil companies in Tea Party rhetoric and launched attacks on policies such as the Lacey Act, which prohibits import of illegally logged wood and poached wildlife. Their efforts have helped persuade politicians like Reps. Jim Cooper and Marsha Blackburn to take on the agenda of the Asia logging companies and pursue a wholesale gutting of the Lacey Act’s forest protections (an effort I’m working to stop).

There have been halting efforts to tackle China and India’s deforestation-based supply chain, but it’s hard to measure the results so far. WWF won vague pledges from some Chinese palm oil companies in 2010 to support sustainability, but it’s unclear what the results have been on the ground. Companies like Tianjin-based Julong boast videos on their webpages showing their trucks clearing land in Borneo.

In other words, in the same way that U.S. companies take advantage of loose free trade policies to export polluting industries to low-wage, low-regulation countries, China and India are doing the same thing in their agriculture and forestry sectors — it’s the Asian edition of carbon offshoring

It’s clear that in a world weighted to the increasingly prosperous population centers in Asia, the question of whether they, as well as their Western counterparts, will take responsibility for the impact of their consumption on the world’s ecosystems is in many ways the big one for the fate of the world’s forests.

The carbon market is dead — long live the carbon market

In America, the sorry demise of climate legislation has made some casual and even not-so-casual observers think we’ve seen the last of carbon markets, cap-and-trade, and their ilk. While in theory, this thinking goes, these might be the most powerful mechanisms on Earth to solve the climate crisis and save forests, they’re somehow too complex or something to actually make a difference.

Under the radar, however, carbon markets are starting to flourish – though wonkish obstinacy is preventing them from achieving their full potential.

By far the biggest breakthrough for carbon markets broadly, and specifically for forests, was the passage of the Australian climate law, including both a carbon tax and cap-and-trade.

As part of the package, Australia launched a Carbon Farming Initiative, which gives credit for carbon sequestration to forest conservation, restoration, and shifts to carbon-sucking agriculture. Not only will the program conserve and restore hundreds of thousands of acres of land, it also ensures that farmers and other landowners benefit financially from action they take to limit climate change.

The program also includes the exciting possibility for emitters to receive credit for investing in affordable international tropical forest conservation measures (REDD+), lowering the cost of the overall program – and saving a lot of orangutans, rhinoceroses and other endangered rainforest creatures. Indeed, without the Carbon Farming Initiative, it’s unlikely Australia’s climate action would have been as ambitious as it is. Combined with California’s emerging program to finance a modest amount of forest conservation in Mexico’s Chiapas state and Brazil’s Acre Province, carbon markets will in the new year start to spur significant conservation in parts of the globe.

You might be asking why I’m not mentioning Europe, the granddaddy of carbon markets. I would like to mention the EU ETS, , but alas I cannot, for it still unfathomably and tragically excludes credit for international forest conservation, the most affordable way to reduce pollution. If Europeans included tropical forests, they could pay the same amount as they do now to reduce pollution, but significantly tighten their overall targets from 20 percent reductions to 30 percent or stronger by 2030 .

The European carbon market is enormous: more than seven billion tons traded annually. If emitters were allowed to use a relatively modest one billion tons of tropical forest conservation annually to meet their obligations, it would radically alter the financial prospects for forest conversion globally overnight. Suddenly, billions of dollars would flood into conservation and trees around the world would be worth more alive than dead. In addition, because tropical forest conservation is among the most affordable ways of reducing emissions, it would cut costs for complying.

The European wonks running the climate program say – and have said for many years now – that they do indeed want to accept tropical forest credits, and are just waiting for international agreement on the technical details of the forest-climate conversation. Why Europe has to wait for the countries of the world to ratify the technical details of the EU ETS is beyond me, but even accepting that argument on its own terms, the conditions should have been satisfied: the Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban climate summits all made the rules of the road for tropical forest investment clear. Nonetheless, European climate wonks continue to dither, and millions of acres of forest go up in smoke every year – saying they’re now waiting for a final deal in 2020. Australia and California have now passed Europe by, but if we’re going to achieve the financing levels we need to make a serious global blow against deforestation, the continent is going to have to finally take action. Will climate champion Europeans really allow forests to go tens of millions of acres of forests to go up in smoke for this wonkish fetish? We shall see.

In the meantime, if there’s anywhere in the world that’s in need of a forest campaign, it’s Europe.

The race between forests and the climate

If you’ve been to the Rockies recently, you’ve probably seen their famous mountains turned into a semi-Apocalyptic crazy quilt of climate disaster. Ancient aspen stands have retreated without sufficient water. Vast swathes of evergreens are now just big, dead, grey skeletons haunting the landscape where forests once stood. They’re victims of climate change as surely as a glacier or a polar bear: with warmer temperatures, bark beetles once killed by cold snaps are able to stay alive during even alpine winters and eat through millions of acres of trees. The arboreal bones they leave behind are tinder for the huge forest fires that have surged across the West in recent years.

These great forests are on the front line of climate change – and they’re not alone. As reported in one of the past year’s great pieces of environmental journalism, “Temperature Rising” by The New York Times Justin Gillis.

The devastation extends worldwide. The great euphorbia trees of southern Africa are succumbing to heat and water stress. So are the Atlas cedars of northern Algeria. Fires fed by hot, dry weather are killing enormous stretches of Siberian forest. Eucalyptus trees are succumbing on a large scale to a heat blast in Australia, and the Amazon recently suffered two “once a century” droughts just five years apart, killing many large trees.

When those forests go up in smoke, we’re losing their wildlife, their clean water, and a little bit of the great outdoors that defines us a people. But as scientists are increasingly finding, we’re also losing a critical weapon in the fight against climate change.

In 2011, scientists seem to have solved one of the great Earth science mysteries: where exactly all the carbon being spewed into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and converting land to agriculture was going. The unsurprising answer, apparently, is forests.

Two studies in the past year found that living forests absorb approximately one third of the carbon dioxide spewed into the air from burning fossil fuels – that’s around 45 percent more than previously thought (oceans are also sucking up a lot of carbon, making them more acidic and less hospitable to sea life). More good news: natural regrowth of previously degraded tropical forests is sucking up a lot of carbon, though there still about 1.3 billion tons more CO2 going into the atmosphere every year from deforestation than is being sequestered by reforestation.

All in all, forests present something of a paradox: on the one hand, we cannot solve the climate crisis without solving the deforestation crisis. On the other, if we don’t save forests and otherwise cut our emissions, the climate-driven burning and decomposition of those forests could make the climate crisis far worse.

So what can be done in 2012 to ensure that forests are helping stop the climate crisis – and that their decay isn’t making it worse? Here are three big ones:

  1. Maintain and expand North American protected forests (huge victory on this front in 2011 when the Roadless Rule protections for 50 million acres were upheld by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and a court ruled that Alaska’s Tongass National Forest should also be restored to protection).
  2. Revisit recent changes to Russia’s Forest Code that, according to Pacific Environment and others, contributed to the (preventable) big fires that swept Russia in recent years.
  3. Invest in simple steps to ensure forests are climate resilient.

The deforestation free revolution

For decades now, companies around the world have been falling over themselves to declare their products sustainable – and tap into the huge global green consumer market. Unfortunately, for many, sustainability is nothing more than PR pabulum (for instance, watch this movie in which a brutal Indonesian palm oil plantation manager responds to evidence that he had engaged in massive deforestation by denying that it was possible because of the sustainability blah-blah on his company’s website).

In the forest sector, this has been a particular problem: because of environmentalists’ attention to forests, most companies feel some pressure to express gooey affection for Mother Earth regardless of how they act towards her.

Probably the two biggest sinners in this regard are the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which distributes a “sustainable” label even to palm oil produced on deforested land – and Asia Pulp and Paper, a unit of the massive Indonesian-Malaysian-Chinese Sinar Mas conglomerate. APP once told World Wildlife Fund that it had to clear more than 400,000 acres of forest to “become sustainable.” In December, satellite data emerged showing that APP was logging in the exact tiger sanctuary that they’ve been promoting as evidence of their sustainability.

In the face of this attitude, forest advocates have started to ask that products be “deforestation free,” not just “sustainable” or “green.” The new approach appears to producing impressive dividends: the Consumer Goods Forum has committed to working to make its members’ products deforestation free by 2020 (the forum included giants Walmart, Sara Lee, Nestle, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, and others).

And individual companies are taking action in ways that could resonate through the entire food chain: in response to Greenpeace’s campaign targeting Nestle, the global food giant committed to finding palm oil from a deforestation-free source, and not just slapping an RSPO label on their foods. In partnership with the Tropical Forest Trust, they’ve been working with Sinar Mas’ palm oil division, Golden Agri-Resources, to ensure that they’re only buying palm oil from plantations not associated with recent deforestation. Given Sinar Mas’ long record of broken promises and rampant deforestation, we’ll have to wait for independent analysis to confirm that the company has indeed improved its performance, but it’s representative of significant progress.

And sitting at a key point in the global supply chain, Cargill in June responded to pressure from Rainforest Action Network activists (and Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen) by promising to take some steps toward reducing deforestation. The company, which trades 25 percent of the world’s palm oil, agreed to supply on RSPO-certified palm oil to Europe and North America by 2015 and Asia by 2020. Given the problems with RSPO and the long timelines, it’s not a solution to deforestation, but it does represent improvement. Even APP may be facing some pressure: U.S. supermarket giant Kroger, thought to be one of the biggest seller of APP’s Paseo brand of tissue paper, recently responded to a request from Greenpeace by ending its contracts with the company.

The great hope is that under assault from its customers and legal pressure, 2012 will see APP and the many other bad actors in the Southeast Asian pulp, paper, timber, and palm oil sectors move from greenwash to green.