Andrew Mitchell: While politicians fiddle in Bali, the trees are burning

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The Independent Online

In two weeks time, Heads of State and thousands of delegates will gather on the Indonesian island of Bali for the mother of all climate change meetings. Well, what a difference a year can make! Al Gore's won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize for telling us the 'Truth', floods have ravaged British homes and the Arctic ice is vanishing faster than anyone expected. At last the world is waking up to the fact that climate change might actually be happening, and like Bob, Bing and Dorothy Lamour, on 'The Road to Bali', we all live in hope that Global Government will act to tackle the causes of climate change before it is too late.

But there is something that can be done now, which even Mr Brown seems to have missed this week in his first major environmental speech. Not a word on what could be massive action on climate change that also offers the poor a real opportunity and a big win for life on earth – and that's to halt deforestation.

Uncomfortably for Indonesia, the host of the Bali conference, it was labeled this year the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, behind China and the US 85 per cent of its emissions come from cutting and burning forests for timber and land, much of it for palm oil production. Britain is the EU's largest importer of palm oil that is an ingredient in hundreds of products we use every day from cakes and crisps, to vegetable spreads. The fact is we are all in this together, from Britain to Borneo. So, well done Sainsbury's for announcing this week to make palm oil used in its products sustainable. So what else is to be done?

Burning rainforests cause around 20 per cent of all carbon emissions, more than the entire global transport sector, and just behind energy, yet until this year it has been little more than a footnote on the international climate change agenda. Forests fall because they are worth more dead than alive – and that is what has to change. Conservation has proved about as good as England's football heroes: a valiant effort every time, but ultimately no match for the competition - in this case the behemoth of international demand for cheap commodities.

All that may change at Bali, where a system of positive incentives is being negotiated which will attempt to redress the balance, by paying countries to deforest less. Nations that do will get rewarded with tradable carbon credits that could be worth billions. Great news for climate, trees and 1.4 billion of the poor, who depend on these forests for their livelihoods. The trouble is, not everyone is invited to the party.

Those who have deforested most in the past also stand to gain the most now, but there's little in it for those nations which have opted to save their forests mostly untouched – like Guyana. Stopping the chainsaws from just finding a new home in these countries means working out how to value these amazing global forest utilities for what they are before they go up in smoke. They provide vital services to humanity – storing carbon, making rain, and harbouring over half of life on earth – and it is high time we all paid the bill, because the forest utility benefits us all.

These are ecosystem services we simply cannot afford to lose and which could become the eco-industries of the future of immense potential value. Innovative investors are waiting to step up and lend a hand and they are increasingly supported by forest leaders worldwide. In Bali, Governments must act to make this a reality – pushing on full-steam ahead to pay countries which cut deforestation without inadvertently encouraging it elsewhere. So push on Mr Brown of Bali, for all our sakes and deal with Forests Now!

Andrew Mitchell is a leading authority on tropical forests, director of the Global Canopy Programme and architect of the Forests Now declaration calling on governments to take action on deforestation (