As international attention shifts to Copenhagen and the coming United Nations conference on climate change, reforestation is emerging as a critical issue for the environment and as a source for government revenue. The issue is particularly important in Southeast Asia, where hundreds of thousands of hectares are cleared of trees each year.
Sometimes known as the lungs of the world, rain forests are crucial in filtering greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Less forest land means more carbon dioxide, which many climate experts say leads to increased temperatures and rising sea levels.
Many governments that have allowed forest clearing are now reconsidering such policies. The change is driven in part by the environmental damage, which includes soil erosion and flooding, as well as the potential to raise billions of dollars through carbon trading programs.
In carbon trading, industrial polluters pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases - such as carbon dioxide. One proposal would allow polluters to pay countries with large forests, mostly in the developing world, to keep trees standing.
Jack Hurd is the director of forestry in Asia for the Nature Conservancy, a conservation group from the United States. He says governments must deal with reforestation as part of their overall environmental plans, with short-term strategies based on soil retention and using native species.
"Then you might want to focus in on multiple species being planted, eventually getting to a point where you're reforesting an area that's going to have a complex structure, composition and function of a natural forest," Hurd said. "That's a long-term investment."
Hurd says governments and business need to be encouraged to pursue such long-term projects. He singles out aggressive reforestation efforts in China and Vietnam as examples for other countries.
"I certainly think the Chinese and Vietnamese are heading in the right direction on this," Hurd said. "They've started from a degraded forest system and taking a look at that they realized their best efforts need to be put into reforestation, increasing forest cover and deriving forest products that they can use for their other industries."
The prospect of making money from selling carbon credits may make it easier for governments to save forests. Already Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia are racing to make themselves the regional hub for trading carbon credits.
In Indonesia, new studies put a far higher price on rain forests that are left standing as opposed to the palm oil plantations that often replace forests. And in Peru, the government hopes its extensive rain forests will allow Lima to raise $8.4 billion by selling carbon credits. And some of that money could be used to replace trees that have already been lost to logging.
Environmentalists and the United Nations hope that nations agree on carbon emissions caps at climate change talks in Copenhagen next month. If they do, then a trading system of carbon credits can evolve under what is called the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program, or REDD.