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If a tree falls in the woods ...

Finding a way to slow the felling of forests is necessary to control global warming

ROME, Italy — There are times when to solve one problem you must first tackle another. That’s especially true when it comes to one of the biggest challenges in tackling climate change — finding a way to reduce emissions from deforestation.

Loss of forest cover is estimated to account for some 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions. When falling trees and burning forests are taken into account, the world’s third and fourth largest emitters of greenhouse gases (after the U.S. and China) are Brazil and Indonesia.

If the international community is to rein in the warming of the globe, it will have to find a way to slow or stop the felling of the forests.

And while some of that can be accomplished by providing the right incentives (or disincentives) to land-hungry industries or governments, all too often the fate of the world’s trees relies on those who can least afford to protect them.

Small-time ranchers clear land in hope of a better life. Subsistence farmers encroach on forests to feed their families. Villagers turn trees into firewood to sell in the city center. In many cases, the choices that are shaping our future are being made by those who don’t have the luxury to think past the present. One solution, advocated by the United Nations, would be to arrange a payment scheme in which rich countries compensate developing nations that choose not to cut down their forests. But it seems unlikely that the funds will trickle down to those who need it most.

A better option, where possible, would be to work to ensure that our interests are aligned with those on the ground. That’s the approach being taken by Tree Aid, a British NGO promoting forestry projects in the area just south of the Sahara.

There’s no question that trees are useful to those that live near them. They can help control erosion, regulate the water cycle, and create homes for game and wildlife. If planted near a house, they offer shade.

In addition to providing food and animal fodder during good times, in places like Burkina Faso where the group has several long-standing projects, trees can play a critical role when the rains take a long time coming.