For the first time in U.S. presidential history, Joe Biden has raised tropical deforestation as a critical climate issue, mentioning on multiple occasions that a key part of his plan is to mobilize $20 billion in international funding to save the Amazon in Brazil. In doing so, the president-elect has acknowledged that, as a climate solution, the scale and impact of ending tropical deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere is immense. It dwarfs what can be done on a dollar-by-dollar basis domestically.
There is no solution to the climate and biodiversity crises without ending deforestation. The science clearly shows protecting forests must be a central and immediate component of the global effort to slow down and ultimately halt climate change, making up a significant portion of the carbon reductions needed to achieve the targets set in the Paris Agreement. Despite this, deforestation is on the rise. In Brazil’s Amazon, deforestation has risen to a 12-year high.
It’s not just the Amazon, but forests around the world. Tropical forests hold close to 50% of terrestrial carbon stocks, and 10% of human-made emissions are currently linked to deforestation for agriculture, mining, urban development or other purposes. Beyond climate, protecting forests also reduces the risks of future pandemics and supports the livelihoods of millions living in rural communities around the world. We are suffering a global recession and drastic changes in lifestyles today as a result of tropical deforestation.
The president-elect is right to think that taking ambitious action to tackle deforestation is one of the best things the United States can do to demonstrate a determination to lead. But what does this action actually look like? Some argue that the focus should be on trade, corporate supply chains and disclosure of climate- and nature-related financial risks — all important avenues to explore. But we shouldn’t rely on regulatory measures alone. There are positive steps the U.S. can take to reward efforts to reduce deforestation in ways that support local development priorities and are not perceived to violate national sovereignty.
As most forest land globally is owned or regulated by governments, the key to protecting forests at large scales is by supporting government-led or sanctioned efforts. Investments in local, small-scale forest conservation projects are not sufficient on their own to shift the ongoing deforestation trend, even if well-designed and successful.
To make the impact at the scale needed, tropical forest protection needs to happen at the national level, working with governments and policymakers, who with the right funding, can commit to robust, national- or state-level forest protection programs.
This isn’t a new idea, but past efforts have faced a number of well-chronicled challenges. Central among those is that national-level programs will not materialize in the absence of massively increased levels of public and private support. Even funding support amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars is not always sufficient to give countries confidence that large-scale forest protection programs are worth the up-front investment in monetary and political capital.
The scale of funding needed is far beyond what can realistically be achieved with government-to-government aid flows, so private sector capital has to be mobilized. The best way to achieve this is by using international markets for carbon credits and capitalizing on the growing demand from the private sector for high-quality, high-impact offsets as they race toward net-zero emissions goals. Under such a system, governments receive payments for the emission reductions they achieve through preventing forest loss or degradation.
This is where the Biden administration can lead. There are three specific actions that the president-elect and his team can focus on during the first year of the new administration in the lead up to the climate summit in the United Kingdom.
First, the Biden administration should encourage all nations to include specific, quantified targets for the forest sector when they update their national climate plans under the Paris Agreement, in order to accelerate comprehensive climate action and enable the private sector to identify investible solutions at scale.
Second, in terms of the $20 billion fund, President Biden should work with other donor governments to use this to establish a floor price for the credits generated by national-level programs. This approach leaves the door open for private buyers to potentially pay a higher price in light of the soaring demand for such credits, while giving the governments peace of mind that there is a guaranteed buyer no matter what happens.
Third, at home, Biden should convene U.S. corporations and investors on the margins of his proposed climate summit to encourage them to make a collective pledge toward the 1 billion ton target by investing in forest protection solutions in the Amazon and other tropical forest regions. That would be equivalent to about 25% of current U.S. emissions.
The president-elect is right to include forest protection in his climate plans; it is a significant opportunity for an early and cost effective win to demonstrate renewed global leadership on climate change. Now is the time to put words into action.
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