William Laurance, a Smithsonian scientist who is also president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, says the proposal "basically involves selling or renting rainforests to help protect the billions of tons of carbon they store, thereby slowing the rapid buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."
The accelerating rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is considered a key cause of global warming. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the destruction of tropical forests--currently disappearing at a rate of fifty football fields a minute--accounts for up to a quarter of all human greenhouse-gas emissions.
The new initiative, which is being forwarded by an alliance of developing countries led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica (www.rainforestcoalition.org), would set up a mechanism whereby wealthy industrial nations pay developing countries to slow deforestation. In so doing, the industrial nations would earn 'carbon credits' that would count toward their agreed emissions target under the Kyoto Protocol or other international agreements.
"It's potentially a win-win situation for everybody involved," said Laurance. "The forests win, the atmosphere wins, the international community wins, and developing nations struggling to overcome poverty win."
"Of course, the devil is in the details," Laurance admits. Earlier efforts to establish rainforest-carbon trading under Kyoto were defeated, in part because countries couldn't agree about whether and how to credit countries that slowed forest destruction.
Some developing countries, such as Brazil, also fought the original proposal under Kyoto, in part because they feared that making long-term, binding commitments to protect their forests might reduce their sovereignty and future development options.
However, the new initiative is rapidly gaining international support. "A key point is that the initiative is the brain-child of developing nations, who are sincerely trying to find an alternative to rapidly destroying their forests in order to develop economically," said Laurance.
The new proposal has also benefited because its proponents have learned from earlier mistakes. "They are being very smart about this, working to build grassroots support and ensuring they get the details of the proposal right," said Laurance.
"So far, even the Bush Administration, which usually fights initiatives to establish binding national commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, has remained silent," said Laurance.
Nevertheless, no one imagines that implementing the proposal will be easy. "There are still many hurdles to clear," said Laurance. "But a key point is that, if a viable rainforest-carbon trading mechanism is established, the perverse economic logic that currently drives rapid forest destruction could be profoundly altered. That would make us all breath a little easier."
In addition to his article in New Scientist, Laurance provides a more in-depth explanation of rainforest-carbon trading in the May issue of Tropinet, a newsletter that is distributed to 8000 tropical biologists worldwide. Copies of both articles are available upon request.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a unit of the Smithsonian Institution, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, furthers understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems. www.stri.org
The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation is the world's largest scientific organization devoted to the study and protection of tropical ecosystems. www.atbio.org