Deforestation and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions

Loss of forests is a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions. Plans to devise a policy tool for using trees for carbon dioxide sequestration are now under way.

Last updated December 21, 2009

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Loss of forests contributes as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions each year--rivaling emissions from the global transportation sector. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol’s offset mechanisms, explained in a CFR Backgrounder, allow credits to be given for replanting trees or establishing new forests, which capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis--but not for avoiding deforestation. Despite hopes from climate advocates that deforestation policy would be one of the few concrete things coming out of the December 2009 UN climate meeting, Copenhagen talks concluded without an agreement for a comprehensive plan for deforestation. Instead, deforestation was put on hold along with discussions for an overall climate agreement. While there is significant consensus on how deforestation programs could be implemented, a number of issues remain under debate.

The State of Global Forests and Deforestation

The world currently has about ten billion acres of forest. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2009 report on the world’s forests, the world lost about 3 percent of forest area between 1990 and 2005, and the net rate of loss (PDF) has declined since 2000 (the world loses an average 32 million acres per year). Growth in northern hemisphere forests has helped offset tropical deforestation. There is disagreement, however, on the extent to which increases in temperate-zone forests offset the loss of carbon sinking in tropical zones.

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Crisis Guide: Climate Change Deforestation is caused by exploitation of natural resources--including expanding populations, logging, agriculture, biofuel production, and wildfires. Clearing forests for the production of biofuels is causing major concern, as experts contend that it has a significant negative impact on forests without doing much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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The 2009 FAO report shows that the greatest overall loss is occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed closely by in Africa. The report also notes that, in Asia, China’s high reforestation rate masks "the significant loss of natural forests in a number of other countries." Indonesia has the fastest deforestation rate of any single country in the world--when emissions from loss of forests are taken into account, Indonesia could be considered the world’s third-largest emitter (PDF) of greenhouse gases, according to a 2007 World Bank report.

China’s rapid growth in the production of manufactured goods that need wood also poses challenges. The country’s consumption of forest products leads the world. According to Forest Trends, a nonprofit research group, China’s increasing demand (PDF) has led to unsustainable and sometimes illegal logging practices in many of the countries seeing significant deforesting activities, such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. "China has a seemingly limitless appetite for cheap wood," says Don J. Melnick, a conservation biology professor at Columbia University. Products made from this timber often wind up in U.S. and European markets. Richard Z. Donovan, chief of forestry for the Rainforest Alliance, an advocacy group, says that China is not only adding to climate change by burning large amounts of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gas but also by being a "non-discriminating buyer" of wood.

Forests: A Vital Part of the Solution

Trees capture carbon dioxide by taking it into their cells through photosynthesis. They then store the carbon in their bodies; a tree is comprised of about 50 percent carbon. Some carbon gets released back into the atmosphere through respiration, but the net effect is tremendous carbon storage. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that U.S. forests absorb between one million and three million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, perhaps offsetting between 20 percent and 46 percent of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that U.S. forests absorb between one million and three million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, perhaps offsetting between 20 percent and 46 percent of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

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When trees are burned, harvested, or otherwise die, they release their carbon back into the atmosphere. The 2007 forest fires in the United States, for example, are estimated to account for between 4 percent and 6 percent of North American greenhouse-gas emissions for the year. Some environmental experts believe climate change may be a contributor to decreasing rainfall in some areas, thus increasing the likelihood of wildfires.

Carbon Offsets from Forestry

The offset mechanisms set up by the UN’s Kyoto Protocol allow a small fraction of the total credits each country is allocated for offsetting greenhouse-gas emissions to come from reforestation (forest restoration) and afforestation (the planting of new forests) projects. None currently are allowed for deforestation, but there is consensus to add the option in a new climate agreement. To date, out of about 1,946 projects registered worldwide, only ten projects have made it through the entire Kyoto process--with a few others still under review. The process for getting a registered project is complex and expensive. "The reality is that very few local communities have the capacity to maneuver through the process," says Celia A. Harvey, senior adviser for forest carbon projects at Conservation International, an environmental advocacy group. These credits also are set to expire after a few years, which makes them less profitable than other Kyoto offsets, experts say.

One requirement of the UN credits mechanism presents particular difficulties for forestry projects. Roger A. Sedjo, a forestry expert for Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank, says Kyoto’s "additionality" requirement--proof that project emissions outcomes would not have occurred without intervention--encourages "crummy projects" that are less effective and difficult to approve. It is extremely difficult to prove that these emissions reductions would not have occurred anyway.

Reservations about Forest Carbon Sinking

Some environmental advocates remain cautious about including forest management in climate-change protocols because they worry it will distract from mitigating emissions caused by fossil fuels. Others worry that forest carbon sinking is difficult to monitor: Projects can be jeopardized by forest fires, bug infestations and diseases, illegal logging, and even human malice. Some environmentalists are concerned that forestry projects will lead to less biodiversity and an erosion of rights for indigenous forest dwellers. In Uganda, for example, a reforesting project became embroiled in a battle (Fortune) over land access between the government and local farmers living at the forest’s edge. Donovan says the best way to prevent such problems is to make sure indigenous groups are allowed to participate in negotiations on policy for their area.

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Some environmental advocates remain cautious about including forest management in climate-change protocols because they worry it will distract from mitigating emissions caused by fossil fuels.

On biodiversity, Harvey notes that the majority of forestry projects so far have focused on fast-growing, mono-species plantations. These trees present known quantities for growing and carbon measurements, making them more attractive projects, while native trees have potential that still needs to be assessed. Donovan argues that allowing plantation projects to be included in the international climate framework may have provided a "perverse incentive" to cut down existing forests in order to have the opportunity to replant them. Both Harvey and Donovan agree the first priority should be to conserve current forests, which provide more benefits than just carbon mitigation, such as protecting natural habitats.

Without avoided deforestation, some experts say that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas from other sectors will be more expensive and take twice as long. Some experts believe that deforestation rates in Indonesia and Brazil alone are enough to undo 80 percent of the emissions reductions designated under the Kyoto Protocol. Experts also say avoided deforestation is a less expensive option for reducing emissions when compared to options such as upgrading power plants.

Forestry and Future Climate Change Policy

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report points out (PDF) that the most sustainable policy for use of forestry as a climate-change tool is one that maintains or increases forest carbon stock while sustaining timber yields. That means slowing the rate for deforestation while providing enough timber and agricultural land to meet the world’s growing appetite. Cutting deforestation rates by 50 percent over the next century would provide about 12 percent of the emissions reductions needed to keep carbon dioxide concentrations to 450 parts per million, a goal the IPCC argues is necessary to prevent significant increases in global temperatures.

Countries are working to make deforestation part of their overall domestic climate policies. Indonesia, Brazil, China, and India, among others, have pledged to reduce deforestation and increase forest cover significantly by 2020.  But making deforestation part of an international framework on climate change faces challenges. "The tough issues are about everything else except forests," says Bruce Cabarle, head of global forestry at the World Wildlife Fund. "The big risk is if, indeed, we can get a larger agreement on reducing greenhouse emissions, in which deforestation will be a piece."

The UN’s program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) is now part of the post-Kyoto negotiations. The program already established a multi-donor fund to finance initial country activities on forest degradation in July 2008, however, a number of issues still remain. An October 2009 report from the Center for International Forestry Research notes while there is consensus on many aspects of a REDD-mechanism for the international climate treaty, negotiators continue to be at odds (PDF) over the scale of activities to be included; the proper financing method; and how measurement, reporting, and verification should be conducted. Environmentalists continue to be concerned about the level of protections for biodiversity and indigenous communities, as well as whether a new policy will include concrete international targets for avoiding deforestation. The Copenhagen talks ended without finalizing any of these issues.

Some experts debate whether deforestation should be added to the credit-trading system already underway. In the short term, developing countries are expected to get money for deforestation funding outlined in the Copenhagen Accord, which calls for up to $30 billion by 2012 and up to $100 billion by 2020 for a variety of mitigation and adaptation activities. Melnick argues a fund would be less effective than a market-based mechanism because governments would never put enough money into the fund. "We can’t get money into funds for starving children and people with AIDS," Melnick argues. "So getting money for trees is complete fantasy." The UN’s REDD fund currently contains about $52 million. However, Cabarle says at least $6 billion will be needed annually to reduce deforestation by 75 percent by 2020 and $40 billion annually to completely arrest deforestation by 2050.

Joshua Busby, an expert on climate change politics, notes there is debate about whether  deforestation monies should be dispersed to governments, large corporations, or local communities. Terra Lawson-Remer, professor of international affairs at New York’s New School, argues that paying governments directly for forest conservation may create a new type of resource curse (Huffington Post) and impede development. "A better option would be to direct REDD payments to sub-national provinces and forest-dwelling indigenous groups, rather than central governments," she argues. "This would put the carbon profits from forest conservation directly into the hands of local resource users, circumventing central governments and short-circuiting the corruption and state corrosion caused by natural resource windfalls."

With carbon credits selling at about $20 per ton on the European market, experts say a market-based mechanism would provide enough incentive (PDF) to avoid deforestation. Donovan says timber and agriculture opportunities from forest land often provide less than $1 per acre. One exception may be biofuel production; as costs for ethanol increase, experts expect to see greater pressure on forests, even with market credits in place. Some people worry that adding deforestation credits to the market will depress current carbon prices. For example, in early 2009, Greenpeace International warned in a report that adding forestry credits to carbon markets (PDF) might reduce investment in green technologies and argued that avoided deforestation should be addressed separately. But others note that plans to expand emissions caps to more industry sectors and the possible inclusion of the United States may increase the need for credits.

Other issues also need attention, such as reducing the complexity of the UN’s project accrediting system to open it up to more people. Another issue is whether avoided deforestation will be included within the current UN mechanisms or if a new type of mechanism will be created. Setting baselines--standards by which to measure performance--for avoided deforestation projects also needs to be determined.


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