• More money for forests and wildlife conservation than has ever been available in history
  • The regrowth of many of the world’s forests
  • Massive quantities of greenhouse gases sucked out of the air

Those are a few of the benefits of the newest versions of the climate legislation now being considered in the House and Senate. Both the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill [PDF] and Rep. Ed Markey’s latest proposal [PDF] include massive financing for forest and land conservation that could save these planetary lungs.

Both bills are based on a fundamental recognition that trees suck up vast quantities of carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen — and that standing pristine forests and grasslands (especially tropical forests) are a tremendous storehouse of carbon that we’ve got to keep safely locked up in forests. Indeed, deforestation for agriculture and logging is already driving 20 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions and is the biggest single source in the developing world.

And so these bills would unleash unprecedented levels of financing to preserve great natural reserves from Big Ag, Big Timber, and land-hungry peasants.

But the ways in which they do it — and the overall scope of the bills — could spell very different fates for the forests and grasslands they’re meant to save. The Lieberman-Warner bill would allow polluters to offset their own pollution with more than 25 percent offsets through domestic and international forest, grassland, and agricultural conservation, reforestation, and afforestation — amounting to billions of dollars a year in financing opportunities. Polluters are likely to jump at these forestry offset opportunities: Because of the relatively low price of land and the immense quantities of carbon stored in the forests, conserving forests is generally a lot cheaper than cleaning up industrial pollution.

The Markey bill takes a different approach. In the past, there’s been some skepticism that offsets from forestry could be accurately tracked. In the words of a senior adviser to Markey’s global warming committee, “You can’t plug a meter into a tree to see how much carbon was sucked in that day.” There were also concerns in the past that it would be hard to accurately track whether a forest that was “saved” would actually have been cut down in the absence of financing or conservation action.

Update [2008-6-4 10:15:34 by Glenn Hurowitz]:: Because of the concerns about accurately tracking international forestry, the Markey bill excludes international conservation and restoration from its offset programs, but not domestic forestry programs.

And so, when it comes to international forestry, domestic wildland and wildlife conservation, and improving agricultural practices (all of which could have a significant carbon benefit), Markey’s bill proposes a different mechanism: Take the proceeds from the bill’s auction of polluter permits and apply a certain percentage to conservation projects, both here in the United States and abroad (the Lieberman-Warner bill also includes provisions that channel money raised through the auctions to conservation, but it’s not as central).

Each of these approaches has advantages and drawbacks. Doing conservation through offsets makes sense because there’s a high level of certainty that the forests will actually get protected. Because of the cheapness of reducing carbon emissions through forest conservation and reforestation, to the extent they’re allowed, polluters will pour money into conservation projects before turning their attention to the energy sector — meeting a significant percentage of the approximately $11-15 billion needed annually [PDF] to halt deforestation worldwide.

On the other hand, the overall weakness of the Lieberman-Warner legislation means that any conservation gains achieved through its forestry and conservation programs could be completely undone by its lack of sufficiently aggressive action to truly solve the climate crisis. Because it doesn’t achieve the 80-90 percent minimum reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050 that scientists say are needed to avoid catastrophe, it could spell doom for the very forests and wildlife it’s meant to protect: Scientists warn that an increase of just 2-3 degrees C could cause the Amazon rainforest to turn into a vast grassland [PDF], releasing enormous quantities of carbon into the atmosphere and condemning millions of species to extinction (while turning grasslands around the world into lifeless deserts).

In contrast, the Markey bill goes much further toward reaching the carbon dioxide reduction goals scientists have laid out, and its forestry components are mostly gravy on top of the large reductions in pollution it achieves in the energy sector. But its land and wildlife conservation programs aren’t guaranteed to reach anywhere near the scale projected, especially in the short run.

Because the Markey bill relies on auctions of pollution allowances to finance its forest and land conservation programs (as well as lots of other good programs), the amount of conservation is entirely dependent on the outcome of the auctions. Reducing global warming pollution could turn out to be far cheaper than anticipated (as occurred under the sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system). Overall, that would be a good thing, but it would starve the essential forest and wildlife protection programs of the funds they need to play a part in stopping the climate crisis (and staving off mass extinction from other sources as well). Secondly, the $4 billion a year projected for international forest conservation is just in an average year. Because initial auctions would generate significantly less funding, it’s unlikely the $4 billion figure would be reached for several years, likely condemning hundreds of millions of acres of rainforest to destruction in the meantime (these timeline concerns also apply to Lieberman-Warner).

In addition, Congress has shown a disturbing tendency to raid dedicated funding sources like this for the (non-environmental) priority du jour.

In contrast, requiring polluters to meet rigorous standards (or face large financial penalties) in order for their offset programs to be given credit will provide a virtually ironclad guarantee that all the forest protection offsets that are allowed under the bill will be achieved, and achieved through very high quality projects.

Finally, there’s been tremendous progress in policy development around forestry that should allay some of the concerns at the root of the Markey funding mechanism. For instance, there has been a great deal of anxiety about “additionality” — whether or not a forest saved through carbon finance would have been preserved through other means.

In fact, we know based on experience in Europe, the United States, and countries like Malaysia that business as usual will lead to the destruction of about 85 percent [PDF] of original forests in any given country. That means that almost any forest protected through carbon conservation would have fallen without it. To save governments the impossible task of figuring out which forests would have fallen and which wouldn’t, it would be better to incentivize the protection of all pristine forests and, to be conservative, discount the value of their protection by, say, 50 percent (i.e., in most cases, reductions in energy pollution would be worth twice a forest saved).

Because of how cheap tropical forest conservation is, that wouldn’t price many forests out of the carbon conservation market but would ensure that all forests and all forested countries, including those with strong preexisting forest protections, would benefit from carbon finance. (Of course, it’s also a good idea to put a premium on the conservation of high biodiversity lands and lands close to the agricultural frontier that are in imminent danger of destruction.)

So what’s to be done? Sens. Bernie Sanders and Bob Corker have teamed up to strip the Lieberman-Warner bill of its international offset provisions, preventing any climate funds from going to international forest conservation. That would achieve bigger reductions in pollution from energy sources, but it isn’t likely to get that much support, as it would cause a significant increase in costs and leave a huge part of climate pollution uncovered.

But there is a way that could provide a guarantee for funding for conservation while allowing us to quickly and cheaply meet the biological imperative of large and rapid reductions in global warming pollution: change the way we look at those offsets. So far, they’ve been seen largely as a cost-containment measure. But that’s not the only way to look at them. Instead, they could be seen as a way to achieve deep cuts more quickly and affordably than in current legislation. Currently, the Lieberman-Warner legislation would only generate a 71 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 and wouldn’t achieve nearer-term reductions as fast as scientists say is necessary.

How could Lieberman-Warner be fixed and the Markey bill perfected? One way is to allow polluters to meet a greater proportion of their pollution cuts through forestry programs, saving them money. In exchange, they’d have to agree to meet much higher overall targets for pollution reduction, including more, relatively modest reductions from the energy sector. (Of course, this isn’t a full remedy; the Lieberman-Warner bill’s trillion dollar-plus windfall for polluters remains a major problem under this scenario.) Greenpeace has made an exciting and somewhat similar hybrid proposal on the international level to ensure high levels of funding for forest protection while bolstering more ambitious greenhouse gas targets).

This way, instead of aiming for 80 percent reductions by 2050, we could shoot for more than 90 percent or go even further to meet or exceed a 100 percent reduction rate. That’s possible because a vast expansion of the world’s forest carbon sinks along with a major clean energy transformation could actually mean that the earth is absorbing more carbon dioxide every year than it is emitting. That’s the kind of breakthrough progress possible only through a real focus on protecting our forests and restoring the forests that we’ve already destroyed, both in the United States and around the world.

Of course, a massive tree-planting effort will require strong ecological protections of its own, and this is an area in which both bills could also be improved. Both bills include guidelines that favor the planting of native species so that these extensive new forests aren’t just mono-cultural green deserts. But the bills need to go further to include explicit instructions that forests should be planted in a way that will enhance clean water and protect wildlife, avoiding the many problems that have bedeviled European forestry.

In short, robust forest conservation programs are essential to solving the climate crisis and achieving broad political support. In the same way that the clean energy revolution will bring prosperity, health, and a living planet to communities around the country and the world, powerful incentives to protect and restore the earth’s forests will deliver major gains in greenhouse gas reduction, saving endangered species, and delivering prosperity to communities around the United States and the world by providing far more resources for development than traditional agriculture ever could.