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Value a forest, cool a planet

The true economic worth of trees isn't recognized. That has to change – and quickly.

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Cutting forests is the third-largest source of climate-warming carbon emissions today, larger than the emissions produced by either the US or China. Including them in a "carbon market" is a tempting solution.

It comes down to this: Today, trees are worth more dead than alive. This despite the fact that they stash away billions of tons of carbon in their soil and themselves and constantly inhale more carbon from the atmosphere. They also help regulate the earth's climate in other ways, influencing rainfall patterns far away, including in the US. And they contain unique plant and animal life, the economic value of which is only beginning to be understood.

Yet no dollar figure is placed on these vital services. Instead, tropical forests are cut down in favor of enterprises such as palm oil plantations or cattle grazing, endeavors that make money here and now. It's easy to see why rain forests continue to disappear at an alarming rate.

A report to the British government this month suggests that the way to recognize the true value of forests is by including them in carbon markets. Polluters around the world could earn credits to offset their own carbon emissions by paying for forest preservation.

If developing countries earned credits for preserving forests, the pace of deforestation might be cut by 75 percent by 2030, the report says. Saving forests, in turn, could reduce the cost of cutting the world's greenhouse-gas emissions by half. Emissions need to shrink to 50 percent of their 1990 levels if the vital goal of keeping global warming to only 2 degrees C by the end of the century is to be met.

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