One of the little-known ingredients of the deal that allowed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, H.R. 2454, to pass the Energy and Commerce committee was a breakthrough on protections for the world’s vanishing tropical forests. The bill’s authors, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), used this agreement to achieve the bill’s environmental aims while keeping it affordable enough to maintain the political support it needed to pass. As such, the bill’s tropical forest provisions are essential not only to strong climate policy, but also to overall hopes for climate legislation as it works its way through Congress.
Destruction of these carbon-rich, biodiverse forests causes about 20 percent of global climate pollution — more than the emissions from all the cars, trucks, planes and ships in the world combined. The bill’s supporters recognized that you can’t solve the climate crisis unless you solve the deforestation crisis.
Tropical forest conservation is one of the most affordable and fastest ways to achieve large pollution reductions. These forests are so biologically rich that every acre stores an average of about 200 tons of carbon dioxide, but because there are currently no systems to value tropical forest carbon, they’re being destroyed for ranchland and soy plantations. Indeed, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.’s recent greenhouse gas abatement cost curve analysis found that tropical forest conservation has the potential to reduce carbon pollution at just a fraction of the cost of other essential strategies, like installing clean energy or improving agricultural practices.
The challenge has been that, despite the importance of saving tropical forests and the relative ease of doing it, intractable debate about exactly how to end deforestation has persisted for years. As a result, tropical forests were entirely excluded from the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, resulting in 300 million acres of forests getting wiped off the map since then.
Since then, a consensus has emerged that this “colossal blunder” cannot be repeated — but exactly how to protect the forests has continued to be disputed, with some groups favoring a pure government funding approach and others backing an approach that would give emitters pollution credits for investing in successful forest conservation.
To resolve this question, leading environmental groups and major U.S. corporations (including some of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters) like American Electric Power and Duke Energy convened a negotiating process through Avoided Deforestation Partners, while the Waxman-Markey legislation was being drafted.
These groups had a major realization: instead of choosing a government or private investment approach, we could do both. Indeed, it became clear that doing both was essential — private investment was the only real hope for attracting the scale of financing needed to end deforestation, while government funding was necessary to build the scientific and policy infrastructure and developing country capacity necessary for a robust private investment system — and to accomplish conservation goals to which private investment was less well suited.
In addition to endorsing this dual approach, the coalition also agreed to set very strict standards for any private conservation efforts. First and foremost, they agreed that emitters could only get credit for conservation activities once they had already occurred — not just for having a plan. They also agreed that all forest conservation activities in major emitting countries like Indonesia and Brazil must be done in association with a national plan that ensures that the project is contributing to a national decline in deforestation, not just a local one.
In order to reduce deforestation immediately, however, the agreement doesn’t require that all forest conservation wait for the establishment of national plans and baselines, a process expected to take some years, especially in the least developed countries that lack the resources to quickly evaluate deforestation levels and carbon stocks.
Instead, in the first years after the adoption of climate legislation, emitters will also be able to get credit for conservation activities that are part of state or province efforts to reduce deforestation in cases where those states or provinces themselves are major sources of carbon pollution. Companies can also receive credit for conservation projects in the least-developed, relatively low-emitting countries while they prepare their national plans. These provisions help ensure that the next few years don’t result in a deforestation race to the bottom before conservation protections are established.
Finally, and crucially, no conservation project at any time will be able to receive credit unless it promotes biodiversity, and indigenous and forest-dependent people benefit from it.
With groups ranging from the Sierra Club to Starbucks and Pacific Gas and Electric Company endorsing these principles, the agreement had the political and policy support it needed. As I outlined in a recent brief paper for The Center for American Progress, the Waxman-Markey legislation includes almost all of these principles – though some technical differences between the agreement and the legislation remain.
That’s great news for tropical forests. Based on figures from the EPA, the tropical forest provisions of the bill would reduce pollution by one billion tons annually by 2015 — equivalent to eliminating all of Germany’s pollution. And one third of those reductions — those generated by auctioning off five percent of the bill’s allowances and dedicating those funds to establishing a conservation infrastructure, among other purposes — come in addition to the bill’s pollution cap. That provides a big carbon saving bonus not accounted for in most estimates of the bill’s impact.
These provisions also provide major cost savings. EPA has estimated that without international offsets (most of which will be forest-based), the bill would have been 96 percent more expensive. In the words of a recent New York Times editorial, “the economics make sense.”
Despite the benefits, the bill has a long way to go before it becomes law — and there are threats at every turn. The House leadership can ensure that the bill’s forest provisions stay intact by not allowing hostile amendments to risk the entire agreement underlying the bill – and the realization of the bill’s environmental goals.
The Waxman-Markey bill’s forest provisions provide a model for action by other countries. If the bill passes and other industrialized countries adopt similar tropical forest conservation measures, deforestation could be ended or even reversed — a huge global achievement that, until Waxman-Markey, seemed tragically out of reach.