Published online 23 July 2008 | Nature 454, 373 (2008) | doi:10.1038/454373b


Think tank reveals plan to manage tropical forests

Novel way to use carbon credits to save trees.


A high-profile group of thinkers has come up with a straightforward way to integrate long-term forest management into an international agreement on halting deforestation.

It is not clear whether the proposal — released on 18 July by the Terrestrial Carbon Group of international scientists, economists and land-policy experts — has political legs.

The idea is to 'lump together' all of the carbon locked up in tropical forests and then allow all countries to cash in on forest protection by trading carbon credits, regardless of whether logging is currently a problem within their borders. The proposal differs from the leading framework under the current United Nations (UN) proposal, which would establish baseline deforestation rates for each country and then allow them to sell carbon credits into an international market if they can reduce the rate of deforestation.

Countries that do not currently have problems with deforestation stand to gain nothing under the UN system, which would mainly benefit countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. Many fear that it could leave the rest of the tropics exposed to logging pressure in the future.

Dan Nepstad, a deforestation expert who is a member of the Terrestrial Carbon Group, says that the group's proposal emphasizes the need for a comprehensive solution for dealing with all tropical forests. “My hope is that it sends a signal to India, Costa Rica, China and other places that there will ultimately be a more robust mechanism that will bring rewards to them,” says Nepstad, formerly a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts who recently joined the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in San Francisco, California, to head its environmental conservation programmes. He is among more than a dozen scientists and economists, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, New York, who worked on the proposal, which was organized by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists in Australia.


The number of credits that can be sold would be limited each year, guaranteeing a stable, long-term market. And it requires countries to maintain protected areas, including those for which carbon credits have been sold.

Doug Boucher, a deforestation expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, calls the approach “novel” but says it introduces a new set of problems, notably that credits could be sold now when the threat of deforestation is decades down the road. He also questions whether negotiators are open to a radical shift in direction at this point. “There's really some strong momentum now,” Boucher says. “That's good, but it does tend to limit the possible options.” 

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