from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Reducing Deforestation to Fight Climate Change

Insights From a CFR Workshop

September 17, 2015



Deforestation is a major man-made source of greenhouse gas emissions, and is especially significant in countries with large tropical forests, including Brazil and Indonesia as well as countries in Central Africa, like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Forests naturally act as a storage unit, or "sink," for carbon emissions into the atmosphere, absorbing about one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted by cars, power plants, and factories every year. But forests, when cut down, are also a source of emissions as they release the carbon stored in their leaves, trunks, and roots into the atmosphere. In recent years, many policymakers have come to see reductions in deforestation (or "avoided deforestation") as a potentially low-cost way to curb greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve these reductions, they have pursued a range of approaches, from tougher local and national legislation prohibiting the destruction of forests to financial incentives for protecting them. Yet there is widespread agreement among analysts that the full hoped-for potential of avoided deforestation has not been realized.

The Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) hosted a workshop designed to draw lessons from Brazil's recent success at limiting deforestation, understand why countries such as Indonesia have so far struggled, and identify ways to further reduce deforestation. The workshop, involving roughly two dozen participants including corporate decision-makers, economists, scientists, nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders, investors, and current and former policymakers, set out to unpack the roles played by government policy, civil society pressure, technology, and private sector initiatives in countering deforestation with a view to understanding how best to limit it in the future. This report, which you can download here, summarizes the discussion's highlights. The report reflects the views of workshop participants alone; CFR takes no position on policy issues.

Framing Questions for the Workshop

Deforestation in Climate Change Policy

More on:

Climate Change

Forests and Land Management

How significant a contributor to climate change is deforestation? How significant will it be in the future? How much might avoided deforestation be reasonably expected to contribute to climate change mitigation? What are recent and expected trends in Amazonian deforestation? What are the economic and political factors contributing to deforestation in the Amazon? How is Brazil engaging in international climate diplomacy with respect to deforestation?                           

Government-Driven Efforts to Reduce Deforestation

How much of the avoided deforestation "opportunity" is likely to be exploited through government driven initiatives, whether they involve one or more country (bilateral or multilateral) or are purely domestic? What is the state of public sector support for international initiatives to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+)? Through carbon markets? Through direct payments from governments? Could the inclusion of deforestation goals, or other related elements, in a Paris agreement encourage additional and effective support from donor countries? Are there other opportunities for international political leverage on avoided deforestation that are not primarily centered on paying for avoided deforestation?

International Private Sector Initiatives to Curb Deforestation

How have private sector-led moratoria on deforestation functioned in Brazil? How significant a factor have they been in influencing deforestation? What concurrent factors (e.g., passage or enforcement of deforestation laws, public and consumer attention, availability of finance) have contributed to the efficacy of the voluntary initiatives? What lessons could other governments, sectors, or companies learn from the Brazilian experience, and are there ways to encourage such learning? Are there steps short of regulation that can governments (whether in Brazil or elsewhere) could take to encourage additional private sector action and make it enduring?

Charts From This Report

Figure 1

Figure 2 

More on:

Climate Change

Forests and Land Management

Top Stories on CFR


Peter Trubowitz, a professor of international relations and director of the Phelan U.S. Center at the London School of Economics and an associate fellow at Chatham House, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the reasons for the rise of anti-globalism in Western countries and its consequences for world order.


The Balkans have long been a source of tension between Russia and the West, with Moscow cultivating allies there as the EU and NATO expand into the region. The war in Ukraine could be shifting the calculus.

Climate Change

Scientists say governments need to act with more urgency to keep global warming in check. How much progress is possible at COP28?