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The Forests and the Trees

November 19, 2009


The seemingly endless debates about global warming normally focus on how human activity releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The activities that most people think about include the gases emitted by: combustion-engine powered vehicles (like cars, trucks, aircraft, ships, and trains); coal-fired power plants that generate electricity for homes and businesses; and, agriculture (where cows belch methane in enormous amounts). New York Times‘ columnist Thomas Friedman reminds us, however, that there is another devastating activity taking place that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves — deforestation [“Trucks, Trains and Trees,” 11 November 2009]. He writes:


No matter how many times you hear them, there are some statistics that just bowl you over. The one that always stuns me is this: Imagine if you took all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world and added up their exhaust every year. The amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2, all those cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships collectively emit into the atmosphere is actually less than the carbon emissions every year that result from the chopping down and clearing of tropical forests in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo. We are now losing a tropical forest the size of New York State every year, and the carbon that releases into the atmosphere now accounts for roughly 17 percent of all global emissions contributing to climate change. It is going to be a long time before we transform the world’s transportation fleet so it is emission-free. But right now — like tomorrow — we could eliminate 17 percent of all global emissions if we could halt the cutting and burning of tropical forests. But to do that requires putting in place a whole new system of economic development — one that makes it more profitable for the poorer, forest-rich nations to preserve and manage their trees rather than to chop them down to make furniture or plant soybeans.”


Unfortunately, “a whole new system of economic development” can’t be put in place “like tomorrow.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start doing something today. Friedman continues:


Without a new system for economic development in the timber-rich tropics, you can kiss the rainforests goodbye. The old model of economic growth will devour them. The only Amazon your grandchildren will ever relate to is the one that ends in dot-com and sells books.”


Reporting from Brazil, Friedman writes about flying over the vast tropical Amazon rainforest, which he calls “one of the lungs of the world.” In discussions with local citizens and politicians, he comes to the realization that “to save an ecosystem of nature, you need an ecosystem of markets and governance.” He continues:


‘You need a new model of economic development — one that is based on raising people’s standards of living by maintaining their natural capital, not just by converting that natural capital to ranching or industrial farming or logging,’ said José María Silva, vice president for South America of Conservation International. Right now people protecting the rainforest are paid a pittance — compared with those who strip it — even though we now know that the rainforest provides everything from keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere to maintaining the flow of freshwater into rivers. The good news is that Brazil has put in place all the elements of a system to compensate its forest-dwellers for maintaining the forests. Brazil has already set aside 43 percent of the Amazon rainforest for conservation and for indigenous peoples. Another 19 percent of the Amazon, though, has already been deforested by farmers and ranchers. So the big question is what will happen to the other 38 percent. The more we get the Brazilian system to work, the more of that 38 percent will be preserved and the less carbon reductions the whole world would have to make. But it takes money.”


As Friedman points out, the world’s rainforests provide a common good, like the atmosphere and the oceans. But just as it is with air and water, countries are reluctant to pay for their use and protection. In the United States, for example, conservatives not only deny that global warming is occurring they are actively fighting measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions [“Rightwing activists fly in face of efforts to cut CO2 emissions,” Financial Times, 4 November 2009] Supported by big energy and oil companies, groups like Americans for Prosperity claim they are protecting freedoms by opposing efforts to curb environmental degradation. According to the article, “the group says the Democrats’ carbon-curbing plans mean lost jobs, less freedom and higher taxes.” Apparently the group is so sure of itself that it doesn’t let people know what the consequences are for their children and grandchildren if they’re wrong. I firmly believe that sensible people can develop a way to protect the environment, create jobs, and promote economic growth. Flying hot air balloons over South Carolina simply adds to the problem. As Friedman concludes:


That is why we need to make sure that whatever energy-climate bill comes out of the U.S. Congress, and whatever framework comes out of the Copenhagen conference next month, they include provisions for financing rainforest conservation systems like those in Brazil. The last 38 percent of the Amazon is still up for grabs. It is there for us to save. Your grandchildren will thank you.”


Brendan Borrell laments the fact that we seem to have lost interest in protecting the rainforests [“Amazon? Still not out of the woods, Washington Post, 10 November 2009]. He writes:


Using the Nexis news database, [analysts] found 993 articles about the Amazon forest in U.S. newspapers from 1990. In 1995, that number dipped by more than one-third, even as deforestation rates spiked higher than they’d ever been. Today, about one-fifth of Brazil’s remaining forests are officially protected, but huge swaths of land in such states as Mato Grosso have been taken over by cattle plantations and soy. Brazilian laws require Amazonian landowners to maintain 80 percent forest cover, but the law is rarely enforced. Even now, Brazil continues to encourage landless peasants to flock to the Amazon, and it has yet to give up on the dream of a transoceanic highway. The good news is that interest in the Amazon has begun to take off again. That’s mainly because of the role that forests play in staving off climate change: Scientists estimate that the Amazon itself has between 85 billion and 100 billion tons of CO 2 stored in its trees and shrubs, or about 11 years’ worth of U.S. carbon emissions. The dangers aren’t limited to Brazil, of course — deforestation rates in Asia and parts of Africa now rival those seen in the Americas. In 2009, Guinness World Records named Indonesia the country with the most rapidly disappearing forests — it’s losing about 2 percent per year — although Brazil remains the leader in acreage lost annually.”


Borrell reports that “many environmentalists now pin their hopes on a U.N.-sponsored plan to use carbon credits as a means of reducing deforestation in developing nations. The REDD scheme (the name stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing nations) will be on the table at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen.” Other environmentalists, however, while in favor of saving the rainforests, don’t believe that letting industries in developed nations off the hook for their greenhouse gas emissions by allowing them to buy carbon credits for saving rainforests will do enough. They base their conclusions on a decade-long experiment in Bolivia [“Use of Forests as Carbon Offsets Fails to Impress In First Big Trial,” by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, 15 October 2009]. Eilperin reports:


More than a decade ago in the northeast corner of Bolivia, a group of polluters and environmentalists joined forces in the first large-scale experiment to curb climate change with a strategy that promised to suit their competing interests: compensating for greenhouse gas emissions by preserving forests. The coalition of U.S. utility companies, two nonprofit groups and the Bolivian government had the common goal of making a dent in the worldwide deforestation. … The outcome of that experiment is fueling debate over a key element in international climate strategy. While the Noel Kempff Mercado Climate Action Project has succeeded in keeping a biologically rich preserve of more than 6,000 square miles free from logging, it has fallen far short of its goal of reducing emissions. The mix of pragmatism and idealism — providing powerful financial incentives to encourage influential companies and poor countries to work together to slow global warming — shows the complexity of a much-heralded approach that Democratic lawmakers and international negotiators are trying to write into law. Preventing the clearing and burning of tropical forests, which help absorb carbon dioxide and provide habitat to an array of species, has become a critical objective for environmentalists.”


So what went wrong with the Bolivian experiment that is raising concerns? The short answer is that nothing went wrong, it simply didn’t live up to expectations. Eilperin continues:


[A recent Greenpeace report] questions the premise of using forest conservation overseas to compensate for U.S. pollution, noting that Noel Kempff envisioned keeping 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere over 30 years but has lowered that expectation to 5.8 million. The revised estimates do not take into account that logging may have moved to areas to the north, east and southwest of the project. And the report notes that the project’s three corporate underwriters — American Electric Power, BP America and PacifiCorp — overestimated how much carbon the project kept from entering the atmosphere, telling the EPA it accounted for 7.4 million metric tons from 1997 to 2004.”


Hardcore environmental groups like Greenpeace would like to see coal-fired power plants shut down. That simply isn’t go to happen anytime soon (if ever). So the big debate is whether a global fund should be established to save the rainforests or whether the marketplace should be relied upon to save them through carbon credits. As the above debate clearly highlights, there are no clear answers. The only wrong answer is doing nothing. Eilperin continues:


Several forestry experts said the world has learned from the Noel Kempff project and has incorporated lessons from it in the policies that U.S. lawmakers and international negotiators are now shaping. The sharp cut in verified emissions reductions came from satellite technology and better computer models that adjusted the baseline for what would have happened if the project had not been conducted. Toby Janson Smith, who directs Conservation International’s forest carbon markets program, said two new global standards — one measuring a project’s carbon storage and another its social and environmental benefits — have built ‘great confidence in the market’ in the last couple of years. And Sarene Marshall, deputy director of the Nature Conservancy’s climate team, said any binding climate regime would allow emitters to use verified offsets only after the fact, rather than projected estimates. ‘We can definitely measure with a high degree of scientific accuracy, and this can be verified by a third party, what would have been the emissions from forests that were targeted for destruction,’ she said.”


One would hope that even the most conservative ideologue would recognize the global benefits of saving rainforests. Even if the rainforests are protected from further destruction, we need to continue efforts to develop in a greener way. If you want to learn more about REDD, read “Last gasp for the forest” [The Economist, 26 September 2009]. REDD proponents tout its simplicity as its main selling point. The Economist notes that changing the world’s energy consumption habits and implementing greener technologies are complex and controversial. “Paying people to not chop down trees looks easy by comparison. It does not depend on any elaborate or costly new technology and is likely to be able to garner the required political support.” The article concludes:


Doing nothing, in short, would be more dangerous than giving REDD a try. Kevin Conrad, Papua New Guinea’s climate ambassador, says financial systems must begin to take account of environmental values ‘if our economies are to survive’. Given that the basic principle of REDD is to establish a financial link between those who will benefit from preserving forests and those who must ensure the forests’ survival, it is an economically sound idea. The question is whether the world has the determination to create a system that will work. Some, like the UN’s Mr Steiner, say that it isn’t rocket science. Others, though, wish it were that simple.”


The answers to global warming are not simple. Nor are they cheap. In the long run, that is why groups like Americans for Prosperity can draw supporters. They would like to go on abusing the commons and let future generations pay the bill for our excesses. We owe our posterity better than that. This generation has a stewardship it needs to fulfill. If a new economic system can be developed that will raise the quality of life in both the developed and developing worlds and, at the same time, saves the environment for future generations, we will all be better off for it. It won’t happen tomorrow, but we can start looking for answers today.

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