An area of tropical forest the size of India will be deforested in the next 35 years, burning through more than one-sixth of the remaining carbon that can be emitted if global warming is to be kept below 2 degrees Celsius (the “planetary carbon budget”), but many of these emissions could be cheaply avoided by putting a price on carbon.
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We project the future of tropical deforestation from 2016-2050 with and without carbon pricing policies, based on 18 million observations of historical forest loss spanning 101 tropical countries. Our spatial projections of future deforestation incorporate topography, accessibility, protected status, potential agricultural revenue, and a robust observed inverted-U-shaped trajectory of forest cover loss with respect to remaining forest cover. We project that in the absence of new forest conservation policies, 289 million hectares of tropical forest will be cleared from 2016-2050—an area about the size of India and one-seventh of Earth’s tropical forest area in the year 2000. We project that this tropical deforestation will release 169 GtCO2 to the atmosphere from 2016-2050—one-sixth of the remaining carbon that can be emitted if the rise in Earth’s temperature is to be likely held below 2 °C. We estimate that a universally applied carbon price of $20/tCO2 from 2016-2050 would avoid 41 GtCO2 of emissions from tropical deforestation while a carbon price of $50/tCO2 would avoid 77 GtCO2. These prices correspond to average costs to land users of $9/tCO2 and $21/tCO2 respectively. By comparison if all tropical countries implemented anti-deforestation policies as effective as those in the Brazilian Amazon post-2004 then 60 GtCO2 of emissions would be avoided. Our analysis corroborates the conclusions of previous studies that reducing tropical deforestation is a sizable and low-cost option for mitigating climate change. In contrast to previous studies, we project that the amount of emissions that can be avoided at low-cost by reducing tropical deforestation will increase rather than decrease in future decades. Encouragingly, 89% of potential low-cost emission reductions are located in the 47 tropical countries that have already signaled their intention to reduce emissions from deforestation in exchange for performance-based finance (REDD+).