SUNGAI NGIHIS, Indonesia—At dawn, Peter Ellis leads a group of environmentalists heading into the tropical forests near this remote village on the island of Borneo. They drive for hours. They climb mountains and cross rivers. And finally, their eyes lock on what they are looking for—loggers.

But this encounter does not turn into an environmentalists-versus-loggers fight, which happens more often than not. Instead, the environmentalists shake hands with the loggers, greet each other by first name, and walk into the forest together to learn how to cut down trees.

Ellis and his colleagues are doing something unusual—fighting against climate change by helping to improve logging operations. This idea remains controversial in the conservation community, but the Arlington, Va.-based Nature Conservancy, the environmental organization for which Ellis works, believes that it is a realistic strategy for reducing forest carbon emissions in a world where market demand for wood is unlikely to go away.

In theory, trees can lock climate-harmful carbon dioxide into centuries-long storage. But the reality has often been that the prevailing economics simply level forests to make way for mining, farming and other developments. The net result is a level of forest destruction that is causing higher emission levels than all the planes, cars, trucks, ships and trains on Earth combined.

Devastating the once-rich forests in Indonesia has turned it into the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the United States. Data from a 2013 study by the University of Maryland show that at least 700,000 hectares (about 1.8 million acres) of forests is disappearing each year in Indonesia, equivalent to nearly two soccer fields per minute.

Avoiding high-damage operations
Logging is a contributor to such forest losses. But scientists say about half of the damage from logging operations can be avoided. According to a recent study published in the journal Global Change Biology, a quarter of the trees that are cut down by loggers end up abandoned in the forest because they are hollow and therefore have low commercial value.

Some trees are dragged down because loggers don't bother to pre-cut vines that connect treetops. Others are gone due to a lack of thoughtful road planning for trucks operating in the forest.

To ensure that only commercially viable trees are cut down, in 2006, the Nature Conservancy and its partners persuaded the Indonesian government to launch a reduced-impact logging project in East Kalimantan's Berau district, where 40 percent of the remaining forests are planned as commercial logging concessions.

Scientists have spent four years tracking the cause of forest carbon emissions, and the fruit of all that effort now is beginning to reshape the logging operations.

The other day, in a meeting room of a local logging company called Karya Lestari, scientists and company executives discussed how wide the roads should be in timber harvesting areas. Loggers traditionally construct wide roads so that the sun can dry the road easily, preventing trucks from getting stuck in mud during the rainy season. However, the scientific study shows that narrowing the roads from their current width of 32 meters to less than 25 meters can lower the carbon emissions of the entire operation by 10 percent.

"If the road is from east to west, maybe we can use a narrow road. But if it is from south to north, then we will have to make the road wider," one executive said.

"Do you think a drainage system can compensate that effect?" one scientist suggested.

"Then we will need gravel," the executive replied. "The operation will become more expensive, and the working hours will become longer. It is also quite dangerous to have a narrow road, because traffic is frequent."

"We can reduce the width of roads and combine this with traffic controls," another Nature Conservancy specialist said, jumping into the conversation. "We can build passing locations along the roads and let truck drivers communicate with radio or walkie-talkie."

Will many small changes have a cumulative impact?
Similar discussions will happen again and again in the next few months, as the scientists and the company executives seek suitable techniques for a 100-hectare (247-acre) pilot project. The idea is to prove those techniques are climate-friendly while not affecting the volume of timber production. When it's perfected, the company plans to scale it up in other timber harvest areas.

A greener logging practice is badly needed. As Soeylino Soedirman, an adviser to the logging company, explained, "it is driven by market demand. The market wants more responsible forest products, so buyers require sellers to do so."

"Indonesia also has committed to reduce emissions for a certain level. Forestry is the most important sector that helps us achieve the emission reduction target," Soedirman said.

Indonesia has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent using its own funds or as much as 41 percent with the help of international aid. That compares with projected emissions of 2.95 gigatons by 2020 if the nation takes no action.

While the exact amounts of carbon dioxide the reduced-impact logging project will help mitigate remains to be seen, depending on which techniques the company chooses to use, it could lower carbon emissions from the logging operation by at least 30 percent, according to the Nature Conservancy's analysis.

The organization believes the large emissions-reduction potential will lure more logging companies in Indonesia to follow suit. It also hopes to spread the use of reduced-impact logging to other nations. Already, Mexico and Peru are taking steps to replicate the approach in their forestlands.

With nearly one-fifth of the world's tropical forests designated as commercial logging concessions, more than double the area under full protection, the Nature Conservancy says that sustainable logging is a viable complement to strict forest protection, as it retains the majority of biodiversity and carbon stocks.

A 'smokescreen' for business as usual?
Not every forest protector agrees. London-based Global Witness, for one, has been lobbying donors since 2009 to prohibit funding for "green activities" related to industrial-scale logging, which threatened to end support for reduced-impact logging and the like. Other environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Rights and Resources Initiative hold similar positions.

In one report, Greenpeace calls sustainable logging "often a smokescreen for business-as-usual destructive forestry." The organization also questions whether the logging sector, which is profit-driven and riddled with illegalities, can be trusted to deliver real emissions reductions.

Ellis and others who are involved in the reduced-impact logging project in Berau acknowledge that their work cannot eliminate all the forest damage caused by logging. They also agree that a monitoring system will need to be in place to ensure that logging operations will not devastate local communities and ecosystems.

Still, he believes that the benefits of cooperating with loggers overweigh its downsides.

"Forests have a certain degree of resilience," Ellis said. "Obviously, forests that are cleared and turned into palm oil plantations will not grow back. But with time, logged forests have the potential to regrow and maintain their conservation value, if you do logging correctly.

"It is funny that the Nature Conservancy as a conservation organization found itself partnering directly with loggers, but I enjoy that challenge, and I think it is one worth articulating as beneficial in the long run," he added.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500