As forests in tropical nations are cleared to make way for large-scale agricultural plots, U.S. farmers may be taking a hit to their wallets.

A new report issued by the National Farmers Union and Avoided Deforestation Partners yesterday finds that hundreds of billions of dollars are lost when forestlands are converted into croplands or cattle feeding grounds. The foreign timber, beef, soy and grain that flood the U.S. market from those fields undercut domestic goods, leading to price hikes, the report warns.

Staving off this rainforest destruction -- and subsequent revival of forestlands -- through conservation efforts like the United Nations' Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program would be a big win for U.S. farmers, ranchers and loggers, according to the report.

The findings underscore what a cadre of environmental and utility groups have been saying as they lobby for the inclusion of tropical rainforest offset funding in U.S. climate legislation. Though they say the forest preservation measures included in the draft bill put forth by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) fell short of needed levels, these groups remain hopeful that strengthened provisions to safeguard existing forest carbon stocks might still be included in final legislation.

"We hope to demonstrate the powerful benefits to the U.S. agriculture and timber industry of protecting tropical rainforests," Glenn Hurowitz, Washington director for Avoided Deforestation Partners and director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Coalition, said of the motivation behind the report, which comes just as senators will be heading to their home states for the Memorial Day weekend.

Globally, about 32 million acres of forest is destroyed each year, mostly in the tropics and, because trees absorb carbon dioxide, deforestation is responsible for some 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Curbing tropical deforestation, the report finds, would yield as much as $221 billion in additional revenue for U.S. soybean, oilseed, beef and timber producers by 2030. That figure rises to as much as $270 billion when accounting for potential increased market needs from U.S. producers, estimated cost savings from complying with climate regulations due to lower energy and fertilizer costs, and also projected offsets.

But getting loggers to put down their axes will not be possible without policies that ensure U.S. financial support for forest preservation, Hurowitz cautions.

Trees worth more dead than alive
Unlike the House version of the climate bill, which set aside 5 percent of all pollution allowances to pay for tropical forest conservation, the Kerry-Lieberman legislation aspires to the same goal of conserving forests but devotes no specific funding to the effort. That leaves the financing of such programs tied to annual appropriations, which forest advocates say would ultimately be a fatal blow to international forest conservation efforts.

Forest advocates are also pushing for offset standards in the Senate bill to be relaxed, since they say the restrictions around what type of credits could be counted for companies' investment will effectively block company investment in forest conservation. The Senate bill would not allow rainforest offset credits to be counted unless tropical nations already have a national or state-level deforestation cap in place -- systems which would likely take years to develop.

With the current Kerry-Lieberman language, Hurowitz said, "There is no chance we would meet the target of stopping deforestation by 2030, because there won't be enough incentives for individuals or countries to meet them." Currently, the trees are worth more dead than alive, he said.

Offset programs could be poised to change that: A 2007 World Bank report estimated that each hectare of rainforest land could bring in $1,500 to $10,000 as a carbon storage asset. That same hectare only brings in $200 to $500 as pastureland.

Yesterday's deforestation report details the cost savings for states that stand to benefit if there were a decline in deforestation and a subsequent drop in competition for their crops, timber or cattle. U.S. timber producers, for example, could see increases in revenue of $36 billion to $60 billion in the next 20 years, with the biggest gains in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

Building on a rare area of consensus
Meanwhile, if deforestation were eliminated by 2030, soybean-producing states like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and Nebraska could expect to gain as much as $7.7 billion in increased revenue. Rainforest conservation could also lead to state-level increases in beef revenue, topping off at $10 billion for a big producer like Texas by 2030 or boosted revenues of $2 million for Alaska, the smallest beef producer, the report states.

The issue of curbing deforestation was a rare area of consensus at the climate summit in December in Copenhagen, Denmark, with six countries -- the United States, Norway, Japan, Britain, France and Australia -- signing on to pay $3.5 billion to fund the REDD+ deforestation effort over three years.

The "plus" in REDD+, which was confirmed at the Copenhagen summit, is an expansion that would broaden the net for participation, allowing more countries to be engaged with the program (ClimateWire, Feb. 15). But exactly how the program would be implemented and the mechanism behind it were left unsettled.

Today, following an earlier March meeting in Paris, perhaps 50 countries are expected to meet in Oslo, Norway, to cement their commitment to the REDD+ partnership and answer some of those lingering questions about how the partnership will work and what its members hope to achieve.

"This partnership shows what can happen when there is the political will to move forward on REDD," said Gustavo Silva-Chávez, a climate and forests specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund. "In a matter of months, over 50 countries have formally pledged to work together to scale up REDD+ actions and finance."

Indonesia pledges to halt deforestation
The effort, spearheaded by Norway and France, is designed to be an interim foundation for the formal strategy that would eventually be folded into the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change process.

Brazil's environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, said earlier this week that the country plans to sign today's partnership document. "Brazil firmly believes in the formal negotiation process, but in the meantime, climate change is too important to wait to begin coordinated actions to fight deforestation," she said. "We need to show the world action."

Ahead of the international deforestation conference, individual countries have taken important conservation steps. Yesterday, Indonesia pledged to cease all deforestation activities for two years after Norway agreed to inject $1 billion into the effort to save the Southeast Asian country's forests and peat lands. Indonesia became the globe's third-largest emitter from slashing and burning its forests, fires that ignited tropical peat land. Norway has already signed similar deals with Brazil and Guyana.

But how U.S. finances will shore up REDD efforts is still in flux, according to proponents of changes to the forestry section of the Senate climate bill. A global effort to combat deforestation, according to some estimates, could come with a price tag of $7 billion to $10 billion in annual public funding during the next decade.

"If the Senate bill in its final form does not allow companies to use international offsets to achieve their targets, then the U.S. as a source of funding for REDD would die," said Daniel Nepstad, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center, which is a member of Hurowitz's Tropical Forest and Climate Coalition, meaning other countries might have to fill that gap with their own funding and offset needs.

A new illegal trade 'alliance'
Yesterday, in an effort to chip away at the illegal timber trade, which is a key driver of deforestation along with agricultural expansion, a coalition of businesses, paper organizations and international groups banded together to form the Forest Legality Alliance.

The public-private partnership aims to work with wood importers and members of the timber supply chain to educate them about new trade policies and help them avoid illegally sourced timber. Its initial work will involve developing new online resources aimed at educating the public about this issue.

The alliance, which is headed by the World Resources Institute and the Environmental Investigation Agency, is also backed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and groups including the American Forest & Paper Association, IKEA, Staples Inc. and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

"Eliminating illegal wood from supply chains will help developing country producers compete in developed country markets while maintaining biodiversity in their forests and strengthening forest governance," said James Hester, director of USAID's Office of Natural Resources Management, in a statement.

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