California’s Big Decision on Climate Change & Tropical Forests

By Daniel Nepstad, Ph.D. Executive Director and Senior Scientist at Earth Innovation Institute

June 15, 2016

California’s public policy innovations for solving environmental challenges have been emulated worldwide. The state is now poised to deepen this legacy of environmental leadership as it scopes the feasibility of implementing the tropical forests provision of its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act. This provision, which would create a mechanism for carbon trades between California and tropical nations, is currently under deliberation by the California Air Resources Board. At Earth Innovation Institute, we see it as the best opportunity in a decade to slow down climate change.

The reason is simple: healthy tropical forests are central to solving climate change. The clearing, logging and burning of tropical forests release about a fifth of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions that are caused by human activities. Roughly half of all of the carbon that leaks into the atmosphere when tropical trees are killed by bulldozers or chainsaws is absorbed again by living tropical trees that are growing and storing carbon in their wood. If we slow the loss of tropical forests while speeding their recovery, the chances of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change become considerably larger. Tropical forests can buy humanity precious time to make the much slower transition to low-emission energy systems.

But what does California have to do with tropical forests? The quick answer is: a lot! The tropical forests provision of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA)—formally known as the international sector-based offsets program–would establish the first regulated market for channeling investments into tropical states and provinces that are successfully slowing carbon pollution caused by tropical forest destruction. It was in anticipation of this market that Arnold Schwarzenegger, while Governor of California, invited Governors of tropical forest states and provinces in Brazil and Indonesia to Los Angeles to establish a novel partnership for slowing climate change by slowing tropical forest destruction. This 2008 partnership has grown to 29 members, called the “Governors’ Climate and Forests task force”. The territories of GCF members include one fourth of the world’s tropical forests, including most of the rainforests of Brazil, Indonesia, Peru and Mexico.

Many tropical governors have not waited for the launch of the California market. They have gotten to work. The Brazilian GCF state governments alone, with help from the Brazilian national government, have already slowed down Amazon deforestation rates by more than 70%, keeping four billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This is a bigger contribution to climate change mitigation than Obama’s Clean Power Plan will achieve by 2030.

Read more on the Earth Innovation Institute website.

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