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What Fighting Deforestation Can And Can’t Achieve

By Jeff Spross

"What Fighting Deforestation Can And Can’t Achieve"

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Deforestation from the Sakhalin II project in Russia. (Credit: PacificEnvironment.org)

When we talk about combating climate, the most obvious issues that come to mind are policies to prevent carbon dioxide emissions — cap-and-trade programs and carbon taxes and environmental regulations. Then there are the technological solutions like renewable energy and electrified vehicle fleets and more energy efficient infrastructure. If people are feeling desperate, they start discussing geoengineering

But one part of the climate change solution mix doesn’t get talked about as often, perhaps because it’s almost too obvious: we need more plants. Or, more specifically, we need more forests.

Thanks to photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy — trees and other flora remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen. This allows them to act as a “carbon sink” — any process that results in a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Conversely, deforestation releases the carbon forests store up back into the atmosphere. The 2007 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that deforestation contributes roughly 17 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, putting it in third place behind the global energy sector’s 26 percent and the global industrial sector’s 19 percent. Most of that action is in tropical forests, where the most egregious deforestation is occurring. Also, contrary to the image of individual rural farmers chopping down rainforest for crop land, most tropical deforestation these days can be laid at the feet of major industries and corporations.

What It Can’t Achieve

Start with the bad news. A recent article in The Conversation pointed to a 2011 study that attempted to measure the effect of living biomass, dead wood, and other organic products from temperate, boreal, and tropical forests between 1990 and 2007. Assessing global satellite data, global forest growth, and density is tough, but the researchers determined that Earth’s forests are taking in around 4 billion metric tons of carbon a year. Unfortunately, deforestation — which exists in a constant tug-of-war with regrowth — rolled a lot of that back, resulting in a net carbon sink effect of 1.1 billion metric tons annually.

The problem is the sheer scale of the numbers surrounding the global forest carbon sink. In 2010, fossil fuel burning, cement production, land use — including deforestation — dumped a grand total of 36.7 billion metric tons into the atmosphere. But only half stayed there. (Deforestation’s 17 percent contribution was to that final atmospheric amount.) The rest was absorbed by the oceans and the land, the latter including the forest carbon sink’s 4 billion metric ton contribution.

Those numbers were about the same in 2011. So just considering the carbon dioxide that got into the atmosphere, even getting back all 3 billion metric tons lost to deforestation would take out only a slice of the problem. The most pessimistic study on this front was released in 2013, and determined that even the best case scenario of deforestation reduction would cut atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide by 40 to 70 parts per million (ppm). That’s in comparison to the up to 600 ppm above 2000 levels human activity is anticipated to add by 2100 under most projections.

There are lots of reasons why reforestation’s potential to curb climate change is limited.

Given human needs and activity, complete reforestation is obviously a pipe dream. Younger and recently planted forests also tend to take in less carbon than older and more developed forests, and carbon can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years — making the path from fossil fuel reserves underground to burned emissions effectively a one-way ticket. Even without deforestation, a forest’s carbon intake for photosynthesis enters into a natural equilibrium with natural fires, decomposition, and other processes that return some of their carbon to the atmosphere under much shorter time periods. So the researchers concluded the most important reason to fight deforestation is to preserve the remaining forests not caught in the deforestation-regrowth tug-o-war, and which have held the most carbon the longest. Losing all of them would add another 130 to 290 ppm to atmospheric carbon concentrations.

That’s really the key take away: fighting deforestation won’t be able to help us roll climate change back that much, but it can help us hold the line against things becoming any worse. But there are other reasons to keep up the fight as well.

What It Can Achieve

Progress on preventing deforestation is mixed, but overall seems to be trending in the right direction. Brazil recently announced that rainforest deforestation there was reduced 84 percent over the last eight years, hitting 1,764 square miles from mid-2011 to mid-2012 — the lowest rate since the country began monitoring it. (Though there are concerns that failure by the Brazilian government to properly enforce its forestry code could reverse that trend.) At the same time, the Mekong region — which encompasses Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar — lost nearly a third of its forest cover between 1973 and 2009. Globally, we’ve seen carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation drop by over 25 percent since 2000, in comparison to 1990s levels.

Source: Tropical Forests and Climate Policy

All that said, we can certainly do better on fighting deforestation. After assuming relatively high levels of economic and population growth a 2007 study, found that reducing present deforestation rates by 50 percent by 2050, and then holding the line until 2100, could prevent as much as 50 billion metric tons of carbon emissions this century. That’s 12 percent of what’s needed through 2100 to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon at 450 parts per million — the threshold beyond which most scientists agree the threat of catastrophic climate change becomes intolerable. The IPCC estimates this could be done for less than $20 per ton.

There’s also ocean acidification to consider. Approximately 10 billion metric tons of the carbon dioxide that didn’t enter the atmosphere in 2011 was absorbed by the oceans, driving up the creation of carbonic acid and threatening a whole host of marine ecosystems.

Human jobs and human lives sit at the top of many of those food chains; about one billion people around the world rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, the vast majority of them in poor and under-developed countries. So every bit of carbon taken in by forests is carbon that isn’t threatening ocean life.

Finally, there’s a feedback loop to keep in mind. Preventing tropical deforestation slows down the climate change that leads to more deforestation, and vice versa. In the rainforest specifically, trees and vegetation actually introduce additional moisture into the air, meaning deforestation reduces rainfall. That makes hydroelectric power harder to produce: a study warned that this process could eliminate 40 percent of the power produced by Brazil’s Belo Monte hydropower complex — the third biggest in the world — which is a problem for a country that gets 80 percent of its electricity from hydropower.

What We Can Do About It

An international mechanism to financially reimburse countries for preventing deforestation has been in the works at the United Nations for several years now. Called REDD or REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) it’s already provided $67.3 million in 16 partner countries. Unfortunately, the program wasn’t part of the Kyoto negotiations in 1997 (though it may make its way into the Paris talks in 2015) and only has $112.5 million to work with, thanks to donations from Norway, Denmark, and Spain. Japan and the European Commission have pledged funds as well, but so far the United States has not contributed a cent. And many of the details for how REDD should operate remain in dispute. So a serious move by the United States’ government to both bulk of REDD’s funding and push it along policy-wise could certainly help.

Granted, REDD is not without its critics or possible pitfalls, particular the fact that much of the program — so far as its developed — is structured around offsets. Monitoring and verifying offsets, which allow one actor to continue emitting a certain amount of carbon if they pay some other actor to carry some net carbon negative act, can be logistically and conceptually difficult. And of course, offsets still allow emissions elsewhere. A better approach for REDD might be to financially encourage developing countries to preserve forests, with no counterbalancing allowances for carbon emissions elsewhere. Just straight up pay them to conserve, on the precept that economically underprivileged countries should not be bearing the burdens of climate change.

Climate Advisors and other groups have also just put forward a raft of recommendations for other ways the United States could step forward to promote commodities and markets that don’t rely on deforestation. These include clamping down on illegal deforestation through tougher import laws, use our technical expertise and resources to bulk up the transparency of of both global agricultural practices and supply chains, and push reforms to both foreign aid and trade agreements.

Finally — and it’s a bit of a second-order effect — another thing the U.S. government could do to help is completely rethink its mandated blend of biofuel in our gasoline supplies. The current policy drives up the demand (and thus the profitability) of corn, soy, and other biofuel stocks, encouraging more deforestation both here in the states and in rainforests around the world to make room for cropland.

So that’s where we are with deforestation. It’s just a slice of the possible solutions, but it’s not a negligible slice. And we aren’t doing enough to make full use of it.

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30 Responses to What Fighting Deforestation Can And Can’t Achieve

  1. Jack Burton says:

    The picture prompted me to do a little research on the Russian Sakhalin Project II. Fascinating project and a real reality check. The world is run on fossil fuels, a look at Sakhalin II will show you just how committed the world is to these cheap and easily transported fuels. Right now, most economies seek more and more oil and gas, these drive the world’s economic growth and this growth must continue to ramp up to service the growing population and the growing expectations. China is the model for the world in the 21st century.
    Now this makes any attempts to stop the growth of fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions a dubious game. Add to that the rise in Natural Gas production and use, with the leakage we know takes place adding a potent greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
    So, how do we tell the world that the game is up? That fossil fuels are killing the planet? It is no wonder people ignore the message, their jobs and prosperity and even the food at lunch is directly related to cheap efficient fossil fuels.
    The result is what we can measure. Co2 concentrations up and spiraling out of control. Methane concentrations rising with a heft increase in leakage with each new Natural gas project. Are we going to be able to turn this around any time before disaster is upon us. I argue that a rational look at reality says NO. Not a chance in hell! This is what the facts tell us. I see no facts that say we are through with fossil fuels and on a crash program to run the world on other sources of energy. No chance, this game is over.

    • David Goldstein says:

      Jack- I agree with all about all you expressed. 1) The work all of us climate activists are doing is important and necessary- from Gore and Mckibben to you and me. We are all doing the best we can and, I presume, will continue to. 2) We celebrate our ‘victories’- though there have not been many – as wel we should. 3) What I think we (or, at least, I) have a tough time acknowledging are the tremendous macro-trends of growth powered by ready and available fossil fuels that exist. I suppose, if we really took that in (as you did in your comment) then, maybe, we are afraid that we would just give up. I will not give up but part of my process now, as an activist, is acknowledging what my heart and mind strongly suspect- that our species is going to bring up some semblance of hell-on-Earth. We are also an extraordinarily resourceful species- perhaps we will be able to figure out a ‘way back’ once we get there! (sadly, that will be up to not-so-far in the future generations)

      • Jack Burton says:

        Indeed, I have no plans to give up, but we must see the enormous nature of the battle. We fight over Keystone XL while Russia build Sakhalin II. Africa, with Chinese help is looking for more oil and gas, and will produce it in future.
        Canadian Tar Sands reflect just how far we have doubled down on oil and gas.
        I read somewhere yesterday that world governments are now reconciled to the global warming event that is right on our doorsteps. What they talk about now behind closed doors is who will be a winner and who will lose. Nations run the models and predict what their mitigation moves should be. What new security measures to take. And how they might even profit from the climate change. This is prudent, because the intelligence agencies of the west and Russia and China have surely informed leadership of what is coming. The governments may be full of liars and greed mongers, but intelligence agencies are tasked with presenting reality to the leadership, like it or not.
        Most people do not know this, but the end of the Soviet Union was engineered by the Soviet State Security Apparatus, like KGB and other lesser organs. Why you ask? Because they have always been staffed with the best and brightest of Soviet Society. They had access to the real data, not the fake propaganda data the civil government presented. Yes, I believe the US CIA for example knows full well that the campaign of lies against global warming is totally fake, and have told the US government and military to expect severe effects from an out of control climate, even now this is happening. Governments know, I am sure the MI6 and MI5 have informed David Cameron about what is coming. The Met Office in Britain even held an emergency meeting recently to discuss Britain’s recent out of control weather events. Oddly enough, the Jet Stream is now bring the first really serious out of control weather events straight to the UK.

        • Superman1 says:

          Jack, I would go even further about what the intel and defense worlds know. The Arctic was of strategic interest for decades, and I’m sure they have relevant data to climate change well above what has been reported in the open press. Given the banks of supercomputers they have available, and the classified data, they know better than anyone that our chances of survival are nil.

    • Brooks Bridges says:

      Like David, I agree with virtually all you say – but think the following require clarification:

      “So, how do we tell the world that the game is up? That fossil fuels are killing the planet? It is no wonder people ignore the message…”

      You must actually accomplish the first two before the third becomes the problem.

      As much as I read on subject of Climate Change, including the excellent posts here, the incredible (maybe impossible) rate of change in world CO2 production required just didn’t hit until I saw the Kevin Anderson (Tyndall Center) presentation on The emperor’s clothes. The graphs were like getting a pie in the face. (climatestate.com has the video)

      So,
      1) The message must be clearer. You still hear so much giving impression this is just another problem we really should deal with.

      2) It must be widely disseminated

      Or by “people ignore” did you mean the people with the power – who presumably DO know?

      Given the urgency I see no way this can be accomplished by other than a top-down government effort – perhaps forced to act by a group of informed, totally dedicated, citizens.

      • Superman1 says:

        Brooks, Jack is completely right on this one. Collectively, we don’t want to pay the economic penalties that would accompany severe fossil reductions, and we don’t want to make the draconian sacrifices that would accompany energy cutbacks. All the data is pointing in one direction only; the remainder is purely wishful thinking.

        • Brooks Bridges says:

          My point is an overwhelming majority your “collective we” are ignorant of just how bad it is.

          Given this state of ignorance why do you keep blaming clueless people for not changing their lives drastically?

          I don’t recall your ever saying some are blameless because “we”, the knowledgeable, have not educated them.

          • Superman1 says:

            You are making the assumption that if they were ‘educated’ about the severity of climate change, they would then change their behavior. There’s no evidence for that; it’s wishful thinking.

      • Brian R Smith says:

        When, and from whom, will the public finally get understanding of the scientific consensus and the grave urgency of action? It isn’t going to be Obama or corporate media, so who does that leave?

        Robert Brulle has described the environmental/climate movement as the largest social movement in US history. It includes hundreds of institutions with tremendous resources and networking expertise, as we all know, not to mention many billions in the bank. It includes millions of already concerned citizens who have no idea what to do and are famished for leadership and credible hope for solutions. It includes scientists from almost every discipline. And it includes thousands of cities and community action groups doing what they can incrementally in relative local isolation. This is an impressive mega-constituency for political influence, EXCEPT THAT IT HAS NO EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP.

        For want of unity (or perhaps imagination?) among the advocates, there is apparently no plan, no collaboration, no summit, no clarion call to organize the entire membership of this movement into a political force. Think it can’t be done?

        Considering the difference high level collaboration of climate leaders could make, there is a case here for a moral obligation to undertake it.

        Personally, I think it’s the last hope for getting us beyond analysis to real national action. So I encourage CP to spotlight this potential and invite climate leaders to post on what more can be done, especially w/ regard to media strategy.

        If dismantling the disinformation machine & getting national clarity on the projections is prerequisite for political turn around on climate; and if that requires the fastest, smartest, biggest PR campaign ever imagined, well jeez, lets build some track. This movement needs coordination if it will later be said we did every thing we knew how. And we DO know how to do this.

        • Brooks Bridges says:

          I think when the blame is ultimately passed around, along with Obama, there will be Brooks Bridges – and a large number of CP readers. Anyone who knew and didn’t do all they could.

        • Brian R Smith says:

          Brooks, later there will be mass regret, but in the present the reality is that institutions, alliances and influential people can do far more than any average individual (or CP reader). The greater responsibility lies with those in position to put the true state of the world, including climate, on the front page of every voter’s brain (right or left).

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            Absolutely correct. Every little individual action helps but if most are denied access to accurate info and scientists have no way of getting their data across to the public, don’t expect an educated public. My survey showed that those who watched our national broadcasters were better educated and doing more than those who stuck to commercial media, ME

          • Brian R Smith says:

            ME, can I link to your survey?

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            Brian, it’s in http://www.sustainablefutureplanning.com.au (references and publications), ME

        • Superman1 says:

          “And we DO know how to do this.” You can organize all the climate leaders you want, and educate the citizenry about the reality of climate change all you want. If the electorate is not willing to make the harsh sacrifices required to avoid catastrophe, all the organizing in the world will be useless.

          • Brian R Smith says:

            Getting the public to the point of willingness to “make the harsh sacrifices required to avoid catastrophe”, which you seem to advocate (yes?) will take a bit of truth-telling to a science illiterate 50%, accompanied by some enthusiasm for saving rather than eulogizing what’s left of the planet that gave you your very own brain to play with… don’t you think?

            Nobody likes a mortician who cheers at the hanging, so choose your profession well.

      • Superman1 says:

        “As much as I read on subject of Climate Change, including the excellent posts here, the incredible (maybe impossible) rate of change in world CO2 production required just didn’t hit until I saw the Kevin Anderson (Tyndall Center) presentation on The emperor’s clothes.” Ask yourself why a summary of that wasn’t posted here, along with the other ‘excellent posts’.

        • Joe Romm says:

          You have become a tedious troll. I cite Kevin Anderson’s conclusions more than any other blogger on the planet — by far! Please go elsewhere to troll.

          • Brian R Smith says:

            As to troll motivation, I think it’s a trophy thing. A sadly misguided pride in merely getting someone’s goat with contrarian cleverness.

    • Superman1 says:

      “No chance, this game is over.” Very true, and it’s been over for a while. The only ones who want to maintain the fiction that we can turn it around are those who want one final run on the casino.

  2. Brooks Bridges says:

    “Finally — and it’s a bit of a second-order effect — another thing the U.S. government could do to help is completely rethink its mandated blend of biofuel in our gasoline supplies.”

    Rethink? I think you could have made the statement far stronger. I’m not aware of any redeeming virtues in corn ethanol.

    And second-order effect? I thought it had significant impacts on world food prices? Perhaps you are using a much narrower criterion.

    Here’s hoping more states will follow FL and no longer require it in gasoline.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Other good things about forests..

    Forests mitigate the effects of extreme weather.

    Forests are ecosystems that can reduce mudslides and floods, can evapotranspire water gradually, hold the snowpack longer, contribute to soil development.

    Forests support a pool of genetic diversity that might even include some of the next geologic era’s keys to survival.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Reforestation is vital once, and if, we get serious about survival and ecological repair. Every square foot that can be forested ought to be forested, and food forests ought to sprout in every city. We need hedgerows back, vast National Parks, city forests, forests of stunted trees in deserts, cold adapted trees climbing up mountains, swamp-lovers in wet-lands etc. Every bit of derelict and degraded land must be re-vegetated. I remember admiring the efforts of guerrilla gardeners in New York, throwing ‘seed bombs’ into vacant lots. Every little bit helps, and this could be vastly more than a ‘little’ if we put our backs into it. Little money is required-just willing labour.

      • Superman1 says:

        “Every bit of derelict and degraded land must be re-vegetated.” So, while we’re in the process of eliminating every bit of forest possible, and paving over every bit of unpaved land, you call for 180 degrees opposite. Do you think that has even a one-in-a-billion chance of happening? We’re on a ship steaming full speed ahead, with no intention of even slowing, much less turning around!

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          One a bad day, one chance in a hundred. On a good one, one in ten. Better than zero, I’d say. I plant a few score myself, every year. A few even survive the droughts and heat waves.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I know this is about CC but trees and forests also have aesthetic and spiritual dimensions which are not unrelated to our propensity to chop them down – for money! I wish more parents brought their kids up to appreciate their natural heritage rather than plastic, ME

  5. I don’t buy the “certain doom” meme. To me it is based on the notion that people won’t be willing to do what is necessary.

    But my reading of history shows that humans have shown repeatedly that they are capable of large coordinated focus and sacrifice if they feel threatened. From victory gardens to fuel rationing to pouring a nation’s resources into fighting a threat.

    In addition such epic struggles give “purpose” to society that I think there is a hunger for in modern life.

    The next generation might find deep inner meaning and purpose in “fighting the good fight” to restore the climate and ocean once the threat is real and pressing.

    I don’t know if humans will respond to the climate crisis with such an effort, but it is certainly possible.

    The future is not known.

    It feels arrogant to me for anyone to say they are “certain” how global society will react to climate changes over time.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Excellent point Barry. Purposeless lives springing from deprivation of opportunties for significant decision making at work and school, is showing up primarily as dissociation and superficiality. But the potential is still there as we see with spontaneous volunteering after disasters, ME

    • Raul M. says:

      What is the example of actions that could reforest while putting mega tons of biochar in the soil, a sudden switch to renewables before economies collapse due to inclement weather, and enlightenment of consequential actions concerning food production before ….?

  6. Good summary of the forest-climate issues. Thanks.

    Another interesting forest-climate interaction emerging is the expansion of forests into tundra in the north. This is increasing carbon sink (slowing global warming) but also darkening albeido (increasing global warming and arctic amplification).