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Carnegie Contact: Dr. Christopher Field
(650) 462-1047 x201 or
For a copy of the paper, please contact:
AAAS Office of Public Programs; (202) 326-6440 or
Climate Policy: It’s good to be in the “RED”
Forested developing nations seek to combat climate change by reducing
Stanford, CA – Tropical deforestation, which releases more than 1.5 billion metric tons
of carbon to the atmosphere every year, is a major contributor to global climate change.
Recognizing this, a group of forest-rich developing nations have called for a strategy to
make forest preservation politically and economically attractive. The result is a two-year
initiative, dubbed “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation” (RED), launched by the
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In a Policy Forum article appearing in the May 10 edition of Science Express, an
international team* of climate researchers make a case for the RED initiative from a
scientific and technological standpoint. They also discuss some of the political and
economic challenges that the initiative will face, and outline a few key solutions to these
“Many of these countries resisted certain provisions of the Kyoto Protocol because they
felt that it intruded on their national sovereignty,” said Christopher Field, director of
Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology and a co-author on the policy article. “Now,
they are ready and willing to address forestry strategies in a constructive manner, on
their own terms. It is very encouraging.”
On the scientific and technical side, the authors address two main questions. First, can
preserving tropical forests make a significant dent in climate-threatening carbon
emissions? And second, will these preserved forests be able to survive in an
environment altered by the climate change that cannot be avoided?
“The answer in both cases is a qualified ‘yes,’” Field said. “As with all measures to
address global warming, the key is immediate and aggressive action.”
On the first question, the authors found that reducing deforestation rates by 50% over
the next century will save an average of about half a billion metric tons of carbon every
year. This by itself could account for as much as 12% of the total reductions needed
from all carbon sources to meet the IPCC target of 450 parts per million of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere by the year 2100.
As for the second issue, computer models that link climate effects to changes in the
carbon cycle have predicted that tropical forests will survive and continue to act as a
“sink” by absorbing carbon, provided that emissions can be kept under control . The
efficiency of the tropical forest as a carbon sink might in fact diminish over time, but the
authors expect that it will not disappear completely.
The political challenges to reducing deforestation in the tropical developing world are
varied and complex. Traditionally, many countries have viewed their forests as an
economic resource that they have the right to harvest, much as oil- and ore-rich nations
exercise the right to harvest those resources. As such, many proposed solutions are
centered on direct economic incentives to reduce rates of tree clearing.
However, the authors of the policy article describe low-cost measures that can enhance
the success of carbon-trade systems and subsidized low-carbon development programs.
For example, by strategically evaluating forest land to determine its value for other uses,
developing countries can focus on clearing only areas with high agricultural value.
“It will require political will and sound economic strategy to make the RED initiative
work,” explains Field. “But the initiative provides a big reduction in emissions at low cost.
It is a good example of the kind of creative thinking that can help solve the climate
*Co-authors on the paper are Raymond Gullison of the University of British Columbia, Canada; Peter
Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists; Josep Canadell of the Global Carbon Project, Australia;
Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution; Daniel Nepstad of The Woods Hole Research Center;
Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University; Roni Avissar of Duke University; Lisa Curran of Yale University;
Pierre Friedlingstein of IPSL/LSCE, France; Chris Jones of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and
Research, United Kingdom; and Carlos Nobre of Centro de Previsão de Tempo e Estudos Climáticos,
The Carnegie Institution of Washington (, a private nonprofit organization, has
been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It has six research departments: the
Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, both located in Washington, D.C.;
The Observatories, in Pasadena, California, and Chile; the Department of Plant Biology and the Department
of Global Ecology, in Stanford, California; and the Department of Embryology, in Baltimore, Maryland.