High-level commission named to explore
forest losses and offsets

By Lisa Friedman • June 19, 2009 • ClimateWire

Hoping to harness a rising awareness of the role forests can play in slowing climate change, a high-level group of lawmakers, executives and national security experts has launched a new commission on forest policy.

Led by Center for American Progress President John Podesta and Republican former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), the group is expected to meet over the summer and to issue by October a set of recommendations to the Obama administration as well as members of Congress working on sweeping climate and energy legislation.

Nigel Purvis, a former senior U.S. climate negotiator and executive director of the Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests, noted that the cutting and burning of forests is responsible for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, international forest offsets are considered a key strategy within pending federal legislation toward helping companies reduce the costs of meeting their emissions reduction commitments.

"Given the urgency of the climate crisis, all of this is moving forests front and center of the climate debate," Purvis said.

In addition to Podesta and Chafee, the commission includes former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.); former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman; Robert Lane, chairman of Deere & Co.; Michael Morris, chairman of American Electric Power; former Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Frank Loy; former Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett; former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan; and former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Sherri Goodman.

Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said she believes the commission can help "demystify" the issue of forests. In most countries, including the United States, she noted, forest policy experts and negotiators work separately from those who address primarily fossil fuels and the ways needed to fundamentally change energy economies.

Thorny issues tangled in the woods

Trees absorb and trap carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that causes climate change. But that carbon is being spewed into the atmosphere at a rapid pace because of illegal logging and the burning and chopping of forests in places like Brazil and Indonesia to make way for crops and cattle grazing.

Stopping the destruction of forests is becoming a central plank in both U.S. climate legislation and international treaty talks. But, Petsonk and Purvis both said, the issue often is still viewed as deeply technical and confusing -- despite offering the ability to improve biodiversity, alleviate world poverty and push forward a global climate treaty.

"This commission can look into those aspects and publicize them, and that can be a very critical role," Petsonk said.

And, noting the presence of at least two defense experts on the panel, Petsonk argued that avoiding deforestation intersects with America's national security concerns.

"If forests disappear in places where poor people live, then poor people are going to leave those places. There's a potential for very great refugee and migration concerns," she said. "It's no accident that there is a national security flavor to this commission."

Federal legislation that Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are pushing in the House would set aside 5 percent of revenue from greenhouse gas emission allowances generated under a cap-and-trade system to reduce tropical deforestation and consequent emissions through "reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation," or REDD, projects.

In a statement, Podesta called the provision "encouraging" and added, "there has never been a more important moment or a greater opportunity for U.S. policy makers to confront the threat of tropical deforestation."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with the permission of Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500

The Commission

Lincoln Chafee, Co-Chair

Former United States Senator, Rhode Island

John Podesta, Co-Chair

President and CEO, Center for American Progress

Sam Allen

President and Chief Executive Officer, Deere & Company

D. James Baker

Director, Global Carbon Measurement Program, The William J. Clinton Foundation

Nancy Birdsall

President, Center for Global Development

Sherri Goodman

Former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security

Chuck Hagel

Former United States Senator, Nebraska

Alexis Herman

Former Secretary of Labor

Frank Loy

Former Under Secretary of State for Global Afairs

Michael G. Morris

Chariman, President and CEO, American Electric Power

Thomas Pickering

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

Cristián Samper

Director, National Museum of Natural History

Lynn Scarlett

Former Deputy Secretary of the Interior

General Gordon Sullivan

Former Chief of Staff, United States Army

Mark Tercek

CEO, The Nature Conservancy

Nigel Purvis, Executive Director

President, Climate Advisers