The rainforests are probably our greatest natural utility, providing huge and irreplaceable benefits.  It is time we started to pay for them too.

Today is World Environment Day, a day which should remind us that there is just the smallest window left for us to act to stop catastrophic climate change.   The frightening reality is that the consequences of global warming are being felt far more rapidly than most scientists predicted even eighteen months ago.  The polar ice cap is melting faster, the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide is diminishing and our weather patterns continue to become more erratic and more extreme.  But we do still have a chance to stop the worst excesses of climate change, so long as we act now. 

And one of the most effective ways we can do this is by halting the destruction of the world’s rainforests, one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Today I am launching the website for my Rainforests Project.  On it are three films, together with the findings of some new research.  The films, which The Daily Telegraph is hosting on its website today and which can also be viewed at www.princesrainforestsproject.org, make use of compelling images from the world’s rainforests, as well as animation, to describe some of the stark facts and implications of tropical deforestation. To give you an idea, let me tell you that in a little less than my lifetime we have lost 50 per cent of the world’s rainforests.  Every year 32 million acres -  an area around the size of England– are destroyed or degraded.  The message is clear: our world is in grave danger of losing its life support system.

These forests, which straddle the equator in a belt around the world contain not only some of the richest biodiversity known – and unknown –  to science, which is crucial to human health and survival in the future, but are also home to millions of the world’s poorest people whose livelihoods depend upon them.  They also play a crucial role in cooling and cleaning the world’s atmosphere and providing fresh water and rainfall. 

At a time when shortages of food are being experienced the world over and population continues to rise exponentially, this rainfall is more important than ever before.  Amazonia’s forests alone, for instance, help to store the largest body of flowing freshwater on the planet and they release 20 billion tonnes of water vapour into the atmosphere every single day.   At the same time, and of vital importance, these forests store carbon on a giant scale and when they are cut down and burned,  the carbon is released into the atmosphere in vast quantities.  That is why stopping deforestation is one of the quickest and most certain ways of slowing climate change and thus purchasing a breathing space. 

Many people are pinning their hopes on new technologies. But while the search for the technologies is gathering momentum, whether it be carbon capture and storage,  third-generation biofuels (which don’t remove land from food production) or hydrogen systems, so is global warming.  And these technologies, however quickly they can be developed, are unlikely to make a significant contribution in time. Yet, in the world’s tropical rainforests Nature has given us an infinitely more effective and cheaper system of storing carbon.

I must say, I was much encouraged by the research that my Project is publishing today which shows an astonishing level of public consensus in the developed world that tropical rainforest destruction must be stopped if we are serious about reducing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Nearly half of Americans questioned and more than half of those in the United Kingdom and France, together with a staggering 70 per cent of Germans, know that the destruction of the rainforests contributes more greenhouse gas emissions annually than the entire global transport sector.  And when asked what would have the greatest practical potential in reducing the rate of climate change, preserving the rainforests was put second only to switching to renewable energy across all four countries

But, while the research shows that people in developed countries understand how rainforests matter, do we truly understand how we are, in large part, the problem?  The cause of deforestation does not lie with the rainforest nations.  Too often it is demand from developed countries for palm oil, beef and soya which is driving the destruction of the rainforests and making them worth far more dead than alive. 

In his ground-breaking report in 2006, Lord Stern identified deforestation as a ‘relatively cost effective’ measure to mitigate climate change.  He estimated it would cost $10-15 billion a year to halve deforestation by 2030.  Although the recent increase in demand for food commodities may have altered this estimate,  tackling deforestation is still one of the cheapest and quickest routes to fight climate change.  But we need to halt deforestation, not halve it.  If this cost, say, $30 billion, it would, for example, represent just under one per cent of the approximately $3,500 billion the world spends on insurance premiums every year – insurance that often ends up paying for the damage caused by climate change. 

What seems to be lacking, however, is what Martin Luther King described as “the fierce urgency of now” and that is why I have set up my Prince’s Rainforests Project, with the support of some of the world’s biggest businesses and leading experts and working with countries around the world, including the Coalition for Rainforest Nations.

The Project’s objective is to find innovative ways of paying the countries which are the custodians of the tropical rainforests an appropriate price for the eco-system services they provide and so out-compete the drivers of deforestation. Put simply, our aim is to make the rainforests worth more alive than dead. It is worth remembering, perhaps, that it has become accepted throughout the developed world that people pay for utilities like gas, water and electricity.  The rainforests are probably our greatest natural utility, providing huge and irreplaceable benefits.  It is time we started to pay for them too.