Until recently, Michael Somare, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, felt that global economic forces were pressuring him to cut down his country’s lush tropical rain forest, the third-largest left in the world.
But Somare now believes he has found a financial incentive to save his nation’s forests, one that should be far more valuable to the world than hardwood timber or coffee plantations. Left alone, forests serve as natural air filters that suck up greenhouse gases and help ward off global warming.
Arguing that the rest of the world is benefiting from their natural wealth without shouldering the cost, a bloc of developing countries led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica plans to make a novel proposition in Montreal this week at a United Nations conference on climate change: Pay us, and we will preserve our rain forests.
“In the rural areas of my nation, where 80 percent of the people live, the only real options for economic growth often require the destruction of natural forests … in order to trade low-value commodities with the industrial powers. I call this eco-colonialism,” Somare said in a recent interview.
“This is a recipe for failure – failure to preserve our biodiversity, pressure to release our people from poverty, failure to protect the world from the greenhouse effect,” he added. “We need to develop a system that will monetize environmental services and capitalize sustainable development.”
The proposal is preliminary, and some experts predict it will be bedeviled by the challenge of finding a fair-market value for nature, as well as international skepticism over whether nations such as Papua New Guinea can shield their forests from illegal logging.
But the idea, which has begun to garner backing from prominent economists, could expand the number of countries interested in joining a new worldwide pact to combat global warming once the current U.N. treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2012.
Human beings have burned or chopped down one-third to one-half of the world’s forests, according to estimates from the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development and other authorities.
Deforestation and other land-use changes accounted for as much as one-fifth of the excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during the 1990s, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Yet international efforts to address the causes of climate change have focused on trying to reduce the burning of fossil fuels by wealthy countries rather than on slowing deforestation.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, only developed nations are required to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases to roughly 5 percent below 1990 levels. The United States, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, rejected the treaty, while every other major developed nation except Australia has signed it.
As an incentive to make reductions under the Kyoto pact, countries that slash greenhouse gas emissions can profit by selling “pollution credits” to countries that do not cut emissions enough. In Europe, such credits currently are valued at $25 per ton of carbon and are in high demand.
But there is no similar incentive to reward rain forest preservation.