As negotiators huddle in Cancún to try to eke out some progress on a global climate agreement, they would do well to look north to California for an example of how to achieve real progress while maintaining strong political support.
In November, California voters resoundingly defeated well-funded attempts to roll back the state's climate law. There were many good reasons for this victory: first among them were a desire to protect the planet and a strongly-held belief that a modern, green economy is California's ticket to a prosperous, competitive future. But this stunning triumph also came about because the law's architects went out of their way to make sure that their plan was cost-effective. As environmentally-conscious as Californians may be, it was clear that an unduly costly approach would test that commitment, especially in the face of a slow economy and serious budget concerns.
California's emphasis on cost-effectiveness and innovation is one that Cancún climate summit negotiators must take to heart if they are to achieve a breakthrough of any kind. Strong economic incentives and clear co-benefits are key to earning domestic support for a global climate agreement, both in the United States and around the world.
Central to California's cost control effort was the inclusion of provisions to protect tropical rainforests around the globe. Forests in countries like Brazil, Indonesia and India keep the planet cool by sequestering carbon dioxide and delivering oxygen to us all. But 1,000-year-old forests are being logged and burned at the staggering rate of over a football field a second to make room in developing countries for unsustainable and often illegal cattle ranching, palm oil and soybean plantations. That forest destruction sends more pollution into our shared atmosphere than do all the cars, trucks, ships and trains in the world combined.
California's sensible insight was that protecting the world's tropical forests would deliver outsize benefits to the climate at a relatively low cost. Because tropical land is relatively inexpensive, compensating landowners, governments and indigenous peoples for protecting their forests can dramatically reduce deforestation, keeping a huge amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, while also preserving valuable plants, animals and watersheds. This approach finally reflects that forests are worth more alive than dead.
And because carbon dioxide is a globally distributed pollutant, cutting carbon at a low cost in Cameroon or Indonesia provides the exact same benefit to the climate as reducing carbon emissions in downtown Los Angeles. Knowing this, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger concluded agreements with rainforest states and provinces – including Acre in Brazil, Chiapas in Mexico and East Kalimantan in Indonesia – to allow credit under the California climate law for pollution reductions achieved in those areas through forest conservation.
These agreements slashed the climate bill's cost, making it very hard for powerful opponents to get traction with arguments that it would bring economic ruin to California. Meanwhile, the law is helping to protect orangutans, tigers, birds of paradise and other creatures that, like billions of forest-dependent people, need living forests to survive.
Even as saving rainforests helps keep the cost of climate action low for people in developed countries, it will also provide a critical boost for developing economies like Brazil and Indonesia. Climate-related incentives to preserve tropical forests enable more sustainable and efficient agricultural practices in developing countries, encouraging them to compete in global markets without using deforestation to keep costs low. Better pasture management, for instance, has allowed ranchers in the Amazon to raise the average number of cattle per hectare substantially, taking significant pressure off pristine forests. Building on forest protection incentives, Brazil has been able to cut deforestation rates by more than half, while still increasing agricultural production. Brazilian farmers and ranchers are now moving towards sustainable production, and proving that developing country producers can compete on level playing field with their competitors without resorting to wasteful deforestation.
Brazil and other rainforest nations are proving that, with the right incentives, it is possible to break the link between pollution and growth. In order for the global community to achieve that elusive goal, governments should take a close look at California's model. Europe, for instance, is locked in an intense debate about whether to commit to achieving a 20% or a 30% carbon reduction by 2020. If Europeans would finally decide to give credit in carbon markets for tropical forest conservation, actually reaching the more ambitious target would be far easier economically and politically – and encourage rainforest nations to be part of the shift to a low-carbon economy. The same is true with respect to carbon markets emerging in Japan, China, Australia and elsewhere around the world.
The negotiators at Cancún could give these efforts a huge boost by finalising agreement on global rules for forest conservation, thereby unleashing billions of dollars of investments urgently needed to halt deforestation. There will be pressure simply to delay final agreement on these rules for another year, or longer – but the forests and the climate can't wait.