Illegal (B)Logging and Climate Change

This is a guest post by Jake Schmidt, International Climate Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. This post first appeared in the NRDC blog SWiTCHBOARD

Illeagl logging contributes significantly to globla carbon emissions As the New Yorker highlighted in their recent article Stolen Forests, illegal logging is a major problem — causing deforestation, supporting criminal groups, etc.  As my colleague Jacob Scherr highlights, it is also a threat to indigenous communities.  And, addressing it is an essential component of efforts to combat global warming pollution from deforestation (shhhh don’t tell anyone that secret…) — which accounts for roughly 20% of global emissions.

Illegal logging is a major driver of deforestation in many of the “hot spots” of deforestation around the world.  As you can see from this table pulled together by my colleague Ani Youatt (who works on our Latin American BioGems project), illegal logging is a major problem in the countries with the highest estimated rates of deforestation emissions.

Illegal Logging and Deforestation - Top 15

We don’t really know how much of global deforestation emissions are the result solely of illegal logging.  In lots of places illegal logging is often the first step in efforts to open up new land for agriculture expansion and subsistence energy use.  But given the high amount of illegal logging in the countries with high deforestation rates, I think it is fair to say that a lot of deforestation emissions are from illegal logging.

Most of the discussion internationally is focused on providing incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation (as I discussed earlier), but strategies to directly address illegal logging have slipped under the radar (see one example where the “Nobel Prizers” didn’t mention it in their discussion on deforestation).

This is an issue that needs to be brought into the debate.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should no longer focus on providing incentives for reducing deforestation (this is a central strategy), but I’m suggesting pulling out another tool in our “toolkit” to address deforestation emissions.

Addressing illegal logging will likely be a central component of the actions that tropical developing countries undertake to address deforestation emissions. Some of the recent Brazilian success in reducing deforestation rates, as I discussed here, have been attributed to the crackdown on illegal logging.  Not the only reason for this decline, but it must be given some credit.  There is no doubt that it will have to be a part of the strategy that the Brazilian Government will undertake to halt forest loss by 2015 (as I discussed in the Race is on to Halt Brazilian Forest Loss by 2015).  [Note: these rates have recently increased due to an attributed rise in soy and cattle prices, so addressing illegal logging can’t be the only thing they do.]  Don’t you think that addressing illegal logging should be a major first effort that developing countries undertake?

But there is also something else…

There is a large global trade in wood.  And, a lot of this wood goes to meet demand from developed countries.  For example, 32% of Brazil’s wood exports go to the US/Europe and 36% of Indonesia’s goes to these countries (from data we pulled together).  Not all this exported wood is from illegal sources, but several estimates suggest that it could be a major portion (see here, here, and here, slide 11).  Which is why efforts to reduce the international drivers of deforestation-such as the import of illegal wood and products-are also so important.  Let’s call it the “double top secret strategy” to address deforestation.

And, illegal logging isn’t the only driver of deforestation where international trade is a factor — meat consumption, soybean use, and palm oil production for biofuels also fall into this category.  [I’ll discuss these other products more in a later post.]

Are there any tools available to address these international drivers from the demand side of the equation (the consumers)-any “top secret” ones (night goggles, telescopic lens, and wiretaps)?  Well, here are some thoughts on ones…

  • Import Restrictions on Illegal Wood and Wood products. The US has made a major step in this direction with the recent adoption of an amendment to the Lacey Act. With this law, all logs and products made of wood (paper, furniture, toys, etc.) imported into the US will have to be certified that they aren’t from illegally procured wood. NRDC is working with others to ensure that this new law is effectively implemented. Properly implemented this new law will handle exports directly from the tropical forest countries and wood exporters (e.g., China which has become the largest importer of logs and exporter of wood products as pointed out in the New Yorker article). Will the EU follow with a similar law?
  • Make developed countries accountable in their emissions reduction targets. At a recent meeting, the lead climate negotiator for the Government of Tuvalu Ian Fry suggested that: if developed countries wish to seek carbon credits from the market in deforestation reductions, then they should have a ‘carbon deficit levy’ (CDLs) based upon the carbon content in the wood they import. They would then need to replace this deficit in meeting their national global warming targets.
  • Other mechanisms such as certification systems are in operation, but they have had mixed success over the years. Got any other ideas shoot me a note.

So you make ask, why do we need efforts to address the international trade in illegal logs if we have an incentive system to support developing countries that reduce their deforestation emissions? Well, wood production is a relatively mobile activity.  So, if you don’t get all the countries with intact forests to participate in a global warming system, there is a strong likelihood that some amount of the wood production will shift from the country that is receiving incentives to reduce deforestation to countries not participating (so called “leakage”).  While proposals are being discussed to encourage the greatest number of countries to play in the global system, I would wager that we won’t get a system in place right away that has the meaningful participation from all the countries with intact forests.  So we need to complement the international incentives with these tools to address the export/import of wood.

Now we simply need some policymakers to put a little “political capital” on the line to help solve this challenge, so people don’t have to go undercover to tackle illegal logging (as highlighted in the New Yorker story)?  NRDC will highlight this issue at an upcoming session at the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Wed. October 8 so stay tuned.

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