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The Plus Side: Promoting Sustainable Carbon Sequestration in Tropical Forests (2010)

Deforestation and forest degradation in tropical countries account for about 10 percent of global warming pollution each year. Tropical forests are a net source of carbon emissions because vast areas are being cleared for agricultural expansion, and because such forests grow slowly, so they sequester—that is, absorb from the atmosphere—only small amounts of carbon each year.

To help mitigate the worst effects of climate change, developing nations need to reduce net global warming emissions from tropical forests by 50 percent by 2020, and bring them to zero by 2030. However, a rapid reduction in deforestation and forest degradation will not be enough to achieve those goals. These nations must also scale up activities that increase carbon sequestration in tropical forests. 
A set of policies known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, Plus Related Pro-forest Activities) aims to do just that by conserving existing tropical forests, restoring degraded forests, seeding new forests, and managing them sustainably. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that putting a price on carbon—such as under a REDD+ system—could spur tropical nations to sequester 1 gigaton of carbon each year through reforestation.

This report explains how a variety of forestry practices can be used to achieve REDD+ policies while meeting strict standards for protecting the environment and communities. If applied effectively, the full range of REDD+ activities can turn forests from a source of global warming emissions into a sink.

Forestry Activities to Sequester Carbon
Some 2.3 million hectares of tropical forest are degraded every year. Degraded tropical forests now total about 850 million hectares, including 270 million hectares in Asia, 335 million hectares in South America, and 245 million hectares in Africa.

In these areas, management techniques that simulate natural regeneration can promote the growth of diverse secondary forests and thus increase the rate of carbon sequestration while also conserving soil. These cost-effective practices include reducing threats to forests from fire and grazing, planting islands of mixed trees species to help seed secondary growth, and even creating mixed-species plantations.

In secondary forests already managed for timber, specific forestry practices can both reduce global warming emissions and increase the rate at which the forests sequester carbon. For example, reduced-impact logging can curb emissions while also boosting growth rates of the next generation of trees. Increasing rotation lengths—the intervals at which trees are cut—and reducing competition from other species can also increase carbon sequestration rates in managed forests.

Adaptive management—in which land managers constantly adjust their approach based on how well a forest is reaching its goals—is especially important in spurring the growth of secondary forests. Community forestry—wherein residents manage forests to provide local economic benefits and ensure sustainability—is also an important tool for reducing carbon emissions and sequestering carbon while providing social benefits.

Making It Count
To receive REDD+ payments for cutting global warming emissions from tropical forests or using them to sequester carbon, developing countries would have to calculate a national baseline: the changes in emissions and sequestration that would have occurred under business as usual—that is, without a REDD+ mechanism. Any cuts in emissions or increases in carbon sequestration above the baseline would be “additional”: they would benefit the atmosphere, and so could qualify for payments.

National level accounting would build the capacity of developing countries to monitor forestry activities while promoting a transparent system.

Summary of Policy Recommendations
In tropical countries national incentives that create value for carbon sequestration will be necessary. Setting reference levels and baselines at a national level will both reduce the threat of leakage and allow for larger-level planning of where different forestry activities are most appropriate. Often national policies will be needed to develop community forestry and provide local and indigenous peoples with the rights necessary for forest management.

Internationally, incentives for the full range of REDD+ activities is necessary. Phased implementation of REDD+ will allow for quick emissions reductions from deforestation and degradation, while forestry activities that will sequester carbon in the coming decades are implemented. In order to achieve the fullest potential from REDD+ the international community should commit to achieve net zero emissions from tropical forests by 2030.

The Plus Side
A REDD+ mechanism should also aim to promote biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the well-being of local communities while reducing net carbon emissions. To ensure that REDD+ reduces net global warming emissions while promoting sustainable development, policy-makers will need to ensure effective accounting of those emissions, and create environmental and social criteria for REDD+ activities.

This report explains how a variety of forestry practices can be used to achieve “the plus side” of REDD+ policies, while meeting strict standards for protecting the environment and local cultures. If applied effectively, the full range of REDD+ activities can turn forests from a source of carbon dioxide emissions into a sink.

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