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Reducing deforestation in developing countries could become a key strategy in fighting climate change, say a group of forest and climate experts.

Their paper, published online yesterday (10 May) in Science finds that tropical deforestation produces 20 per cent of all carbon emissions caused by humans and destroys long-term carbon sinks.

Reducing tropical deforestation to 50 per cent of its current level over the next 50 years ― and then maintaining that level until 2100 ― would, it says, reduce carbon emissions by 50 gigatonnes this century; the near equivalent of six years' global fossil fuel emissions.

Josep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project and co-author of the paper, points out that such a "50/50/50 option" could achieve 12 per cent of the total emissions reduction called for by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million.

The team's finding also challenges previous models that predict climate change will make tropical forests more prone to conversion into drier ecosystems such as savannahs, thus releasing carbon (see One fifth of Amazon rainforest 'savannah by 2099').

The new-generation climate models used in the study predict that global tropical forests will remain net carbon sinks ― albeit declining ― even under the IPCC's mid-range emissions scenario.

"The paper gives strong confidence that tropical forests are here to stay, even with moderate global warming," Canadell told SciDev.Net, adding, "Therefore it is worthwhile to invest in their protection as a potentially cost-effective option for climate change mitigation."

Slowing tropical deforestation is one of the least expensive options to fight climate change proposed by the IPCC in a major report last week (4 May) (see IPCC: We have the means to fight climate change).

Many developing countries have already expressed a desire to reduce tropical deforestation, but will require financial and technical support to do so from developed countries.

Developing countries from across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America and Oceania released a joint statement in March this year of "commitment and solidarity" to reduce emissions from deforestation.

The statement was submitted to international delegates at a conference for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany, where discussions are currently underway to develop a global policy for reducing emissions from deforestation (7-18 May).

Link to paper in Science [3.35MB]

Reference: Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1136163