By Emma Marris

The amount of illegal logging is down an estimated 22 percent worldwide since 2002, according to a report released today by Chatham House, the London-based think tank.

The report's authors suggest that fighting illegal logging is a cheap way to prevent carbon emissions --produced when felled trees rot or are burned. The decline in illegal logging may have kept some 1.2-14.6 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide locked up in trees over the last decade.

But the problem is by no means solved, the report says. Illegal logging is the first step in a larger process that often ends in complete deforestation, and it remains rife in many places. Many countries have sustainable forestry laws, but illegal logging thrives wherever corruption, chaos and political apathy are found regardless of what laws are on the books. Illegal loggers range from small, "artisanal" groups with one truck and a couple of employees to multimillion-dollar companies who build roads and sawmills.

Wood products made from illegal timber are often consumed in Europe, Japan and the United States. In these regions, enforcement is on the rise. In 2008, the United States banned imports of illegally harvested timber. This year, the European Parliament voted in similar rules on July 7. The ban will go into effect in Europe in 2012. But companies still often turn a blind eye, "prioritizing profits over ethical standards," according to the report's lead author, Sam Lawson, an associate fellow at Chatham House. But even a total end to illegal timber imports wouldn't solve the problem, as the contraband would likely find its way to "less sensitive" markets, such as the Middle East, according to Lawson. "If the United States just shuts off its market--even if it could--it would still be a great problem," he says.

Before illegal wood arrives at consumer countries, it often passes through China or Vietnam. The report concludes that stricter enforcement at these "processing countries" is badly needed.

Nonetheless, illegal logging has declined sharply in the three countries studied in detail in the report. The authors found a 50 percent reduction in Cameroon, a 50 percent to 75 percent reduction in Brazil and a 75 percent drop in Indonesia. Such decreases may have cost as little as $2.50 per metric tonne of carbon, as compared to a cost of $18 per metric tonne in the European Union carbon trading scheme.

The reasons for the decline vary by country. In Cameroon, donor countries insisted that an independent observer of forests be installed. Brazil has been cracking down on illegal logging for years, thanks to an interest by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In Indonesia, pressure from nongovernmental organizations seems to have been key. But the gains are easily reversible, Lawson says, as the whims of politics tend to cause frequent changes to policy in particular countries. "Things could go back to the way they were very easily," he says. "And there is still so much more that could be done."

Simple savings

Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington D.C., says that the key figure in the report is the $2.50-per-metric-tonne cost of avoiding emissions. Governments should seize upon such a low-cost way of reducing their emissions, he says.

But he notes that cracking down on illegal logging will not always bring about reductions in emissions. Sometimes the deforestation isn't driven by illegal logging, he says. In the Amazon, deforestation is often linked to the expansion of soy farming and cattle ranching. "The basic underlying driver is the agriculture and illegal logging is associated with deforestation that is happening anyway," he says.

Patrick Gonzalez, a forestry scientist currently visiting at University of California, Berkeley, says that reducing illegal logging can be considered a kind of REDD program-- the acronym, popular in climate-negotiation circles, stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. "The reduction in illegal logging that they report has already achieved the kind of results that REDD programs are trying to achieve," he says.

Gonzalez would like to see vigorous "command and control" enforcement of logging rules paired with schemes that give the responsibility for and the revenues from a forest to local people. "People will take care of forest resources when they have a stake in the state of the forest," he says. "You need both enforcement- and community-based programs."

Gonzalez adds a caveat to that attractive $2.50-per-metric-tonne figure: "Illegal logging may be more cost-effective than carbon trading, but we should not forget that energy efficiency and conservation are more cost-effective than all measures. Not emitting greenhouse gases in the first place is the most effective way to reduce climate change."