Tropical Rain Forests: Bad to Worse

[Another post by Ken Levenson.]

Pushed from center stage by the expected record arctic ice and permafrost melt, tropical rain forest destruction has been elbowing its way back through the smoke and into view. Papua New Guinea’s rain forests disappearing faster than thought is one such look:

Previously, the forest loss was estimated at 139,000 hectares per year between 1990 and 2005. But now?

Using satellite images to reveal changes in forest cover between 1972 and 2002…Papua New Guinea (PNG) lost more than 5 million hectares of forest over the past three decades…Worse, deforestation rates may be accelerating, with the pace of forest clearing reaching 362,000 hectares (895,000 acres) per year in 2001. The study warns that at current rates 53 percent of the country’s forests could be lost or seriously degraded by 2021.

Stunning. Adding insult to injury – the good news as reported last Thursday in Malaysia didn’t last long:

PM: No clearing of forests for oil palm plantations

Abdullah, who is also Finance Minister, said the existing oil palm plantations were enough to cater to current demands and there was no need for the opening of new plantations at the moment.

Fast forward THREE DAYS:

Sarawak to open more land for oil palm

Sarawak will continue to open up more land for oil palm plantations, Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud said here yesterday. He said this would not go against the prime minister’s directive on the clearing of land for oil palm plantation as it did not apply to the state.

So much for Malaysia lending a hand.

The narrative turns from bad to worse as we turn toward the Amazon. It’s tough to complete with the destructive capacity of the permafrost melt, but the Amazon is making up for it in its willy-nilly approach to climate destruction. This recent article by Rhett Butler at environment 360 sets the scene:

Historically, the Amazon has proven resilient to climate change, human disturbance by pre-Colombian populations, and even periods of fire and extreme drought during millennial El-Ni±o-like events. Yet the present onslaught of forces affecting the Amazon is unprecedented. Never before has the region experienced the simultaneous impact of large-scale forest loss and degradation, fragmentation, fires, and global warming. Many scientists and conservationists are deeply worried, not only because of the loss of biodiversity that accompanies destruction of the forest, but also because the cutting and torching of this vast repository of carbon will further heat up a planet already warming at an alarming pace.

What are the numbers?

Brazilian satellite data from late 2007 show a marked increase in the number of fires and deforestation in the key soy and cattle-producing states of Par¡ and Mato Grosso. Both experienced increases in forest loss of 50 percent or more over the same period in 2006, coupled with a large jump in burning — in the case of Mato Grosso, a spike of more than 100 percent. The 123,000 fires detected across the Brazilian Amazon by the Terra and AQUA satellites are the most since such measurements began in 2003. Deforestation in the last five months of 2007 was expected to exceed 7,000 square kilometers, an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island.

Yes, the drivers of ethanol, soy and cattle are well documented, but as is our habit, we tempt much worse:

As demand for biofuels continues to grow, there is a very real possibility that oil palm could become a dominant crop in the Amazon — an ominous development considering that the planting of oil palm plantations has been the driving force behind the recent destruction of huge areas of rain forest in Indonesia and Malaysia. Scientists estimate that Brazil has 2.3 million square kilometers of forest land suitable for oil palm, equal to the forested areas conducive to soy and sugar production combined.

The bottom line doesn’t get much lower:

Writing in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B earlier this year, Daniel Nepstad and colleagues predicted that 55 percent of Amazon forests will be “cleared, logged, damaged by drought, or burned” in the next 20 years if deforestation, forest fires, and climate trends continue apace. The damage will release 15 to 26 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, adding to a feedback cycle that will worsen both warming and forest degradation in the region. Nepstad says this scenario is a conservative one — forest loss and emissions could be far worse.

It’s worth repeating: 15 to 26 billion tons of carbon by 2028 – from the Amazon alone. (That’s the equivalent of 55 to 95 billion tons of CO2.)

Nepstad is saying this is conservative – it could be “far worse”. Will we see the conservative estimate? Or worse? Or far worse realized? (Hint: remember our climate change story – so far, bad to worse.)

But let’s not throw hope under the bus – in the Abstract Dan Nepstad states:

Several important trends could prevent a near-term dieback. As fire-sensitive investments accumulate in the landscape, property holders use less fire and invest more in fire control. Commodity markets are demanding higher environmental performance from farmers and cattle ranchers. Protected areas have been established in the pathway of expanding agricultural frontiers. Finally, emerging carbon market incentives for reductions in deforestation could support these trends.

Putting some numbers to this, Managing Forests for Climate Change Mitigation by Josep Canadell and Michael Raupach in the June 13th issue of Science (sub. req’d) – conveniently referenced in this Mongabay article.

The article summarizes:

Noting that 13 million hectares of forest are felled each year, releasing 1.5 billion tons of carbon, Canadell and Raupach write that reducing deforestation rates by 50 percent by 2050 and stopping deforestation when countries reach 50 percent of their current forested area would avoid emissions equivalent to 50 billion tons of carbon.

Then quoting Canadell and Raupach:

“This ’50:50:50:50′ estimate shows that even with continuing deforestation over the next 40 years, the mitigation potential is large, in addition to protecting the sink capacity of forest for continued removal of atmospheric CO2.”

Yes, the mitigation potential is large but is our inertia larger still?

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5 Responses to Tropical Rain Forests: Bad to Worse

  1. Juliette says:

    The first easy step to take in order to prevent deforestation would be to implement the existing laws. Illegally logged wood is still being sold all over the world, without raising much interest. The EU tried the path of self regulation with the FLEGT program – but as most self-regulating programs, you can imagine how that went. It’s not even just climate too – it’s human rights (tribes deprived of their land), biodiversity (natural habitat cleared out)…
    Thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom, and there is yet one thing we can do: writing to the EU Commission and ask them to pass the legislation to finally make illegal wood well… illegal:

  2. Earl Killian says:

    Thank you Juliette. What about in the US?

  3. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    It is hypocritical of the world to criticize Brazil for clearing the forest for agricultural because vast areas of the native forests in western europe and the eatern US were cleared for agriculural and for construction of cities, town and villages before 1900.

    Consider the Great Plains. Most of all of the original good arable land in the US and Canada has been cleared framing. Wild grasses have been mostly replaced with domesticated cereal grains, and the buffalo with cows and cattle.

  4. Jonas says:

    I think Harold Pierce Jr is the realist here. It’s very easy for wealthy Westerners to criticize countries who are making the transition to modernity.

    Palm oil has lifted the Malay population out of poverty (it is Malaysia’s second most important product after hydrocarbons). Agriculture in Brazil has pushed down food prices globally, making it possible for hundreds of millions of people to achieve a basic standard of living.

    So the question is which credible economic alternatives there are. Just telling these countries to stop deforesting is not an option. Putting a carbon price on trees is too weak an offer (a dead forest is worth much more than the carbon in its trees). Creating a market for ecosystem services for which Euro-Americans are willing to pay, is a minimal requirement.

    Add to this that if we want to halt deforestation, you have to hand over trillions to these countries, so they can leapfrog into post-modernity. Because deforestation has lead, historically (in the US and the EU that is), to improved mobility, access to social services, a wealth of affordable food and forest products, and access to modernity proper.

    So are we willing to spend 5 maybe 10% of our incomes on halting deforestation in the tropics? If we aren’t, we should basically shut up.

  5. Juliette says:

    The US has just passed a similar piece of legislation, forbidding the import of illegally logged timber – the first of its kind. I haven’t read it, but what I gather from the comments of colleagues who have is that it doesn’t go as far as it could in controlling the real origin of the timber. There are still a few loopholes, and since what we’d like is a law to close a giant loophole, we’d better make sure we don’t leave any.
    By the way, to halt deforestation, you do have to hand in a bit of money – billions, not trillions. If that’s the price to pay to make sure we don’t keep screwing up in the future, sure, why not.
    The excuse of “western countries have done it in the past, we have no right to expect developing countries not to do it” is wearing a bit thin. Learning from past mistakes should be a priority. Hell, we don’t let developing countries commit genocide or continue slavery just because western countries did it in the past. Why should that excuse be of any value for deforestation, which currently drives 20% of climate change?