Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Deforestation: The hidden cause of global warming

In the next 24 hours, deforestation will release as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as eight million people flying from London to New York. Stopping the loggers is the fastest and cheapest solution to climate change.

So why are global leaders turning a blind eye to this crisis?

by Daniel Howden

from The Independent & The Independent on Sunday (May 14 2007)

The accelerating destruction of the rainforests that form a precious cooling band around the Earth's equator, is now being recognised as one of the main causes of climate change. Carbon emissions from deforestation far outstrip damage caused by planes and automobiles and factories.

The rampant slashing and burning of tropical forests is second only to the energy sector as a source of greenhouses gases according to report published today by the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of leading rainforest scientists.

Figures from the GCP, summarising the latest findings from the United Nations, and building on estimates contained in the Stern Report, show deforestation accounts for up to 25 per cent of global emissions of heat-trapping gases, while transport and industry account for fourteen per cent each; and aviation makes up only three per cent of the total.

"Tropical forests are the elephant in the living room of climate change", said Andrew Mitchell, the head of the GCP.

Scientists say one days' deforestation is equivalent to the carbon footprint of eight million people flying to New York. Reducing those catastrophic emissions can be achieved most quickly and most cheaply by halting the destruction in Brazil, Indonesia, the Congo and elsewhere.

No new technology is needed, says the GCP, just the political will and a system of enforcement and incentives that makes the trees worth more to governments and individuals standing than felled. "The focus on technological fixes for the emissions of rich nations while giving no incentive to poorer nations to stop burning the standing forest means we are putting the cart before the horse", said Mr Mitchell.

Most people think of forests only in terms of the carbon dioxide they absorb. The rainforests of the Amazon, the Congo basin and Indonesia are thought of as the lungs of the planet. But the destruction of those forests will in the next four years alone, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern, pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than every flight in the history of aviation to at least 2025.

Indonesia became the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world last week. Following close behind is Brazil. Neither nation has heavy industry on a comparable scale with the EU, India or Russia and yet they comfortably outstrip all other countries, except the United States and China.

What both countries do have in common is tropical forest that is being cut and burned with staggering swiftness. Smoke stacks visible from space climb into the sky above both countries, while satellite images capture similar destruction from the Congo basin, across the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.

According to the latest audited figures from 2003, two billion tons of carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere every year from deforestation. That destruction amounts to fifty million acres - or an area the size of England, Wales and Scotland felled annually.

The remaining standing forest is calculated to contain 1,000 billion tons of carbon, or double what is already in the atmosphere.

As the GCP's report concludes: "If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change".

Standing forest was not included in the original Kyoto protocols and stands outside the carbon markets that the report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed to this month as the best hope for halting catastrophic warming.

The landmark Stern Report last year, and the influential McKinsey Report in January agreed that forests offer the "single largest opportunity for cost-effective and immediate reductions of carbon emissions".

International demand has driven intensive agriculture, logging and ranching that has proved an inexorable force for deforestation; conservation has been no match for commerce. The leading rainforest scientists are now calling for the immediate inclusion of standing forests in internationally regulated carbon markets that could provide cash incentives to halt this disastrous process.

Forestry experts and policy makers have been meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week to try to put deforestation on top of the agenda for the UN climate summit in Bali, Indonesia, this year. Papua New Guinea, among the world's poorest nations, last year declared it would have no choice but to continue deforestation unless it was given financial incentives to do otherwise.

Richer nations already recognise the value of uncultivated land. The EU offers EUR 200 (GBP 135) per hectare subsidies for "environmental services" to its farmers to leave their land unused.

And yet there is no agreement on placing a value on the vastly more valuable land in developing countries. More than fifty per cent of the life on Earth is in tropical forests, which cover less than seven per cent of the planet's surface.

They generate the bulk of rainfall worldwide and act as a thermostat for the Earth. Forests are also home to 1.6 billion of the world's poorest people who rely on them for subsistence. However, forest experts say governments continue to pursue science fiction solutions to the coming climate catastrophe, preferring bio-fuel subsidies, carbon capture schemes and next-generation power stations.

Putting a price on the carbon these vital forests contain is the only way to slow their destruction. Hylton Philipson, a trustee of Rainforest Concern, explained: "In a world where we are witnessing a mounting clash between food security, energy security and environmental security - while there's money to be made from food and energy and no income to be derived from the standing forest, it's obvious that the forest will take the hit."

(c) 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

Commerce must be seen as an ally, not an enemy

by Andrew Mitchell

from The Independent & The Independent on Sunday (May 14 2007)

Emissions from tropical rainforests are the elephant in the living room of climate change.

Twice as much carbon is stored in the trees as in the whole of the earth's atmosphere. If that goes up in smoke, you can forget the whole caboodle, yet poor countries are burning forests like there is no tomorrow. Why do we argue over air travel when carbon from the next five years of burning rainforests will be greater than that for the entire history of aviation - and for at least the next two decades!

Yet halting those emissions remains a minor part of the agenda, despite a report in January by the consultancy gurus, McKinsey, showing forestry offered the largest and most cost-effective opportunity for global action. Clearly, forests should be first, not last in the debate - yet the same report buried forests under a mountain of technology-based solutions that developing countries can ill afford. What is going on?

When Kyoto was conceived, it seemed right that precautionary measures should focus on the industrialised nations first. Heavy hitters in the NGO world lobbied to exclude forests from Kyoto to prevent industrialised nations from buying carbon credits in, say, the Amazon or Borneo. The result has offered these no way of getting Kyoto credits from their forests other than by cutting them down and planting new ones.

Fortunately, a year ago the Coalition of Rainforest Nations demanded that it should be paid to stop cutting down forests. Brazil has now put forward its own proposals for a rainforest credit scheme.

After thirty years at the conservation frontline, I fear that history may condemn our past efforts as little more than the "charge of the Light Brigade". Now we must increase the value of rainforests to stand up to the power of rising global demand and we must harness commerce as an ally.

In January, I hosted a visit by Governor Braga of Amazonas State to London. He was asking for help to save the biggest store of natural carbon on the planet. But the Amazon offers much more than carbon. It acts like a global-scale utility, generating rain vital for Brazil's agriculture, hydropower stations and industry, while the forest canopies of the Amazon, Congo and Asia air-condition our atmosphere, buffer climatic conditions and give livelihoods to 1.6 billion.

Marketing these ecosystem services could provide the added value forests need and help dampen the effects of industrial emissions. Our global alliance of scientific organisations has set up the VivoCarbon Initiative to deepen our understanding of the vital roles played by living carbon, and today I am launching our first Report, which calls for increased incentives for sustaining rainforests, and mechanisms to pay for it.

There is nothing to be gained from allowing the folly of deforestation to continue. Those countries wise enough to have kept their forests could find themselves the owners of a new billion-dollar industry.


Andrew Mitchell is the Founder and Director, Global Canopy Programme

(c) 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

Bill Totten