Arcoiris waterfall at Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in Bolivia, South America. Photo © Hermes Justiniano.

Mark Tercek is president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

Over the last few months, I have been participating in a bipartisan commission — The Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests — that is focused on the connections between climate policy here in the United States and protecting tropical forests. The commission comprises some of the country’s leading government, business, conservation, science and national security experts, and is co-chaired by former Senator Lincoln Chafee and John Podesta, the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and former White House chief of staff.

Today, the commission unveiled our report highlighting a cornerstone of the policy debate: We cannot win the battle against climate change without protecting our forests.

Destruction of the world’s forests each year produces 17 percent of all carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. Each year, roughly 50,000 square miles of forest — an area larger than the state of Pennsylvania — disappear.

Today’s report calls on Congress to pass legislation that will help cut emissions from tropical deforestation in half within a decade and achieve zero net emissions from the forest sector by 2030.

While this sounds like an ambitious goal — and it is — forest protection requires no technological breakthroughs and is one of the most cost-effective strategies we have to address climate change.

Currently, cash-poor but forest-rich nations can earn more money by destroying their forests than by conserving them. But the United States can lead in the global climate battle by providing the incentives and support developing countries need to protect their forest resources and lower emissions.

The report is particularly timely now, because the Senate is considering a climate change bill that offers a significant opportunity to implement a number of these recommendations. And by offering to partner with developing countries to reduce emissions from forest destruction, the United States could help other countries undertake more ambitious efforts to reduce emissions as the countries of the world head into climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

The commission calls for the United States to mobilize $14 billion each year by 2020 to protect the world’s forests, largely from private funds. This mobilization could be accomplished by enacting comprehensive climate policy legislation that caps and steadily reduces U.S. carbon emissions and provides incentives for U.S. companies to invest in forest conservation. In this way, such a program would create a win-win opportunity for businesses, consumers, forests and the people who inhabit them.

In the global effort to contain climate change, it is important to take steps to reduce all major sources of carbon emissions. Yet a ton of carbon emissions reduced through forest protection is just as important for our atmosphere as a ton of carbon reduced from a tailpipe or a smokestack.

The commission also recommends that the United States commit to early and sustained public investments — starting with $1 billion by 2012, and increasing to $5 billion annually by 2020 — to unlock these cost savings and begin to reduce deforestation in nations that cannot initially attract sufficient private capital. A well-designed cap-and-trade program, supplemented by bold commitments through the appropriations process, would provide an effective mechanism for providing this sustained public financing. (See a recent speech I gave at Yale University to learn more.)

At the Conservancy, we have seen first-hand how forests can be a powerful tool against climate change. For more than 10 years, the Conservancy has worked with some of the country’s leading businesses to launch programs that protect threatened forests, lower emissions, benefit local communities and fight climate change.

Our Noel Kempff project in Bolivia is the world’s first — and only — forest carbon project to have its emissions reductions verified by a third party. By bringing together AEP, PacifiCorp, BP, the Bolivian government and local communities, the project is protecting 1.5 million acres of tropical forest and will prevent the release of 5.8 million tons of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

In Indonesia, The Nature Conservancy is currently working with government agencies, private businesses, local communities and other partners to launch a massive forest carbon program that will span the entire governmental district of Berau – equal to the size of the country of Belize.

And in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Para, which account for 70 percent of Brazil’s deforestation, we are moving forward with two large-scale reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) pilot projects that have the potential to halt millions of acres of deforestation and reduce emissions of millions of tons of carbon dioxide. These programs will demonstrate to U.S. and international climate change policymakers how REDD can work in practice.

Along with reducing emissions, stopping deforestation protects biodiversity as well as the food, water and economic resources communities rely upon for survival.

Halting the destruction of the world’s forests is within our grasp. The United States can and should lead in this effort, and the report released today shows the path forward.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Given as how tallgrass prairie ecosystems store carbon more efficiently than most trees, by pushing the carbon underground, why are you not seeking to preserve more acres of tallgrass prairies?

  2. The trouble is the countries these forests lie in. It’s been hard enough to convince rich developed countries that climate change is more important than their economic output. But the poorer countries are relying on cultivating these forests for economic stability. They are going to be much harder to convince

  3. By 2030 there wont be any trees left to save !!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I have the same question as Dennis Toll as to why you are not pushing prairie conservation of Carbon more than trees because it is tremendously more effective. The prairie was the largest biome on North America pre-European. In a comparison from the soils class I took at the University of Minnesota our textbook gave the following information.

    Prairies: 329 ton in ground. Standing crop 7 tons. % sequestered = 98% in long term storage.

    Forests: 172 tons in ground. Standing crop 202 tons. % sequestered = 46% in short term storage.

    I am working with an environmental group on this and would like a reply to provide relativity to my statements.

    Thanks you,

    John Hamer

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