Global Warming: A REDD Solution to the Green Problem!

Should forests be preserved only for carbon?
Should forests be preserved only for carbon?

Importance of Forest Cover

Forests act as vast carbon sinks by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. A major consequence of deforestation and forest degradation is the release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Deforestation is a threat not only to the climate because it is responsible for around 10% of net global carbon emissions, but it also has wide ranging effects. It is a serious issue not only from the “carbon sink” angle – forests sequester 45 percent of all of the carbon in the world – but also because deforestation reduces soil cohesion that is responsible for soil erosion, flooding, and landslides. Forests are home to more than half of all species in the world and hence are vital for preservation of biodiversity. So, their role is crucial in mitigating global warming as well as ecological issues.

Globally, forests cover a total of 4 billion hectares which is equivalent to about 30% of the total land area, of which 95% is natural forest and 5% is planted forest. However, they are disappearing: the decade 1990 – 2000 saw a net loss of 8.3 million hectares per year; in the next decade up to 2010 it reduced leading to loss of 6.2 million hectares per year. The decrease in the rate of deforestation is clearly due to increased awareness and international preservation efforts. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world lost around 2.3 million sq km of forest between 2000 and 2012. For lay people, it is the equivalent to losing 50 football fields a day, or an area roughly the size of Costa Rica every year. By way of an interesting comparison, in 1923 the global forest cover was about 10 hectares per person – in 2010 it was about two hectares per person. Most of the loss is occurring in tropical regions, suggesting that their conservation needs attention.

Preventing deforestation and degradation of forests is perhaps the quickest and cost effective way of curbing global warming. Globally, people are campaigning for zero deforestation by 2020.

Tropical Rain Forest are NOT meant to be destroyed and consumed.
Tropical Rain Forest are NOT meant to be destroyed and consumed.

World Forest Cover

South America has the highest percent of forest cover (about 50%) and Asia has the lowest percentage (less than 20% of land area). Five countries with the largest forest areas are: the Russian federation, Brazil, Canada, US, and China. Combined together, they account for over half of world forest area. Three major tropical forest regions facing deforestation are the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and the Congo Basin; taken together they cover eleven billion hectares of forests.

However, not all forests are equal when it comes to their environmental value. The conifers of Sweden and Norway do little to absorb CO2. Somewhat better are the fast-growing softwoods that China is planting around its new coal power plants. But it's the natural rainforests of Indonesia, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia that are the real "lungs of the planet". Any erosion here will be grossly painful in the future.

Forests are not just collection of carbon sticks (trees). Why should we destroy biodiversity and ecosystem?
Forests are not just collection of carbon sticks (trees). Why should we destroy biodiversity and ecosystem?

What Drives Deforestation

The ever increasing demand for timber, food and forest products leads to deforestation both legally and illegally. The demand comes not only from rising global population but also from the changing living style of higher income population. The problem is further aggravated by the rising price of these commodities – it further incentivizes forest clearing and encroachment. Deforestation is a major source of greenhouse gas emission – more than the global transportation sector.

The causes of deforestation vary both regionally and with time and often facilitate each other. Half a century ago state driven activities caused deforestation; now business operations of private enterprises are threatening forests. In recent decades, forces of globalization and urbanization are fueling the demand from distant urban and export markets, weakening the earlier strong link between local demand and deforestation.

The drivers of deforestation vary between tropical regions. For example, in Latin America, logging and agriculture play central roles. After 2006 when moratorium was placed on the expansion of soy production in the Amazon, development of pasture for cattle became the dominant threat to forests of the region. In Asia deforestation is largely driven by large-scale agricultural and mono-crop plantations for palm oil, coconut, rubber and teak.

Apart from timber and agri-business related causes, there are other causes that destroy forests: mining for metals like aluminum, copper, gold, etc which also contaminates the local forest eco-system; construction of roads which fragments the forest landscape, endangers wildlife habitat and provides access points for illegal loggers and other business operations that further damage the forest; and hydropower dams which flood upstream forests leading to widespread forest loss, habitat degradation and displacement of forest communities and wildlife.

What is my Fault?
What is my Fault?

Global Warming is no More a Possibility; it’s Happening Already!

Increasingly, stronger scientific evidences are establishing the link between society’s carbon emissions and rising global temperatures and the drastic consequences if effective action is not taken to reduce emissions almost immediately.

In September 2013, the IPCC published Volume 1 of its 5th scientific report on climate change. And what does the report conclude?

Most important, the report shows unequivocal evidence for global warming. The past three decades have been all warmer than any decade since 1850. Not only that, each of these three decades was warmer than the previous decade. The current levels of greenhouse gases (CO2 and methane) are at all time high and have increased by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. They come from use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) with additional contribution comes from deforestation which further speeds up the process.

Secondly, scientists now feel that human beings are the ‘extremely likely’ cause of global warming since the mid-20th century. When scientists say ‘extremely likely’ it means they are 95-100% sure.

Thirdly, the higher levels of greenhouse gases will continue to impact coming decades. For instance, longer and more frequent heat waves can be expected with a 90-100% probability. There will be a 66-100% probability for increased occurrence of fewer warmer and/or cold days and also more frequent warmer and/or hot days. More frequent and intense rainfall will also become ‘likely’, so will be droughts in drought-prone areas.

Other processes will also get amplified as GHG levels go higher. It means the oceans will become more acidic as they absorb part of the greenhouse gas – it means adverse effects on coral reefs and other sea life. As oceans warm and glaciers and ice sheets melt, the mean global sea level will rise faster than it has during the past 4 decades. Depending on the scenario, by 2055 sea levels could rise between 40 cm and 2.6 m. If the situation continues over the next 100 years, we can expect serious threat for major coastal cities such as New York.

The IPCC report also put a ceiling (carbon budget) for the global use of fossil fuels. It said that in order to have a 66% chance of keeping global warming below 2°C, the carbon budget is 800 gigatonnes. About two-thirds of this carbon budget has already been used up in fossil fuel emissions. What it means is that the longer the world takes to cut down GHG emissions, the tougher actions will be needed in the future which means harsher impact on the economies.

The report concludes that the climate change is certain to continue due to past, present and projected emissions. Even if some miracle stops emissions today, the effects would persist for centuries to come.

Climate Change 2013

Business World Acknowledges Climate Change

Businesses are already feeling the pinch of climate change, and its impact is likely to grow bigger with time. While the impact of climate change varies across sectors, 83% of the world’s top 500 companies now see climate change as a business risk. More and more asset managers now factor climate change into their investment decisions. A 2013 survey of asset managers with $14 trillion in assets, 53% said that climate change data dictated their investment decisions in listed equities. It was a significant increase from 23% in 2012, and just 9% in 2011.

Examples of the action companies are taking include:

  • Two-third utility companies recognize extreme precipitation and extreme temperatures are a significant risk for their operation.
  • Companies whose supply chain includes agricultural inputs are already analyzing the effects of climate change on their operations.
  • Mining and raw material companies are worried about a potential water scarcity.
  • Some oil companies are gearing up to protect their offshore rigs from the threat of stronger storms.

Green is Refreshing!
Green is Refreshing!

Real-Time Monitoring of Loss/Gain of Forest Cover

Recently in Feb 2014, a Washington based think tank, World Resources Institute (WRI) launched the initial phase of a project, Global Forest Watch, along with Google and other partners. Latest up to date data should have significant impact on the quality of global policy dialogue.

The initiative is a step forward from providing monthly updates. Using close-range satellite imagery on tree-cover gain and loss and “cloud computing” the GFW currently provides monthly updates at a resolution of up to 500 meters, as well as yearly updates at a resolution as close as 30 meters.

Being free and publicly accessible, GFW and its partners hope to also use ordinary people to exert public pressure on governments and businesses to implement eco-friendly policies and sustainable timber harvesting.

REDD+ Talks 2013

Probable Impact of GFW

It should help keep an eye on the activities of the large corporate suppliers – many indulge in illegal timber harvesting, in highly susceptible areas. Real time vigilance should enable framing effective interventions to prevent deforestation. In addition to lumber, traders also often rely on rainforests to procure things like palm oil which is a popular additive in processed food. For example, activists discovered that the US food manufacturer, Kellogg, procured palm oil from suppliers whose activities harmed rainforests in Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests. Faced by public criticism the company had to announce that it would alter its procurement procedures to ensure more sustainable harvesting practices.

The RWI hopes that the new real-time monitoring would dramatic improve the enforcement and awareness across the world. Companies like Unilever and Nestle have already committed to keep its supply chain deforestation-free and hope that the GFW would help them identify the errant suppliers.

Global Efforts to Reduce Deforestation is Gaining Momentum

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation has become a major international effort as more countries and companies are moving to curtail activities that contribute to the loss of natural forests. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that deforestation represents a net 10 per cent of the climate challenge. Loss of green cover is the single largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission.

Experts feel that the combined potential of forest restoration and reduced deforestation could constitute a still bigger climate change mitigation strategy. Not only from greenhouse gas emission perspective but also because it could lead to improved livelihoods and food security, climate resilience, water and biodiversity conservation, and respect of the rights of indigenous and local communities. It all translates into promotion of social justice and sustainable development.

Now even the major companies that procure inputs that are significant drivers of deforestation, such as palm oil, beef, soy, paper and pulp are coming forward to commit to deforestation-free supply chains and public-private partnerships to facilitate these commitments. They aim to achieve zero deforestation by 2020. The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 is another growing public-private alliance working to reduce deforestation.

UN Secretary-General has planned a Climate Summit in September 2014 when ambitious new initiatives to reduce deforestation or restore degraded forest lands are expected to be announced.

“Carbon offsetting makes sense if you are seeking a global cut of 5% between now and forever. It is the cheapest and quickest way of achieving an insignificant reduction. But as soon as you seek substantial cuts, it becomes an unfair, impossible nonsense, the equivalent of pulling yourself off the ground by your whiskers. Yes, let us help poorer nations to reduce deforestation and clean up pollution. But let us not pretend that it lets us off the hook.”

George Monbiot, The Guardian, July 2009

REDD / REDD+

Global initiatives to preserve forest cover, particularly in the developing countries is popularly termed, REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. It describes programs initiated by major international organizations such as the UN and the World Bank to prevent deforestation in the developing countries.

The basic concept is simple: reward developing countries to keep their forests instead of cutting them down. The United Nations describes REDD as follows:

“REDD is a mechanism to create an incentive for developing countries to protect, better manage and wisely use their forest resources, contributing to the global fight against climate change. REDD strategies aim to make forests more valuable standing than they would be cut down, by creating a financial value for the carbon stored in trees.”

Forests are cut not out of malice, but because cutting trees brings financial benefits. Deforestation brings rewards in the form of timber, or the land can be used for growing crops or as pasture. Similarly, forest degradation generates benefits from; say selective logging, fuel-wood collection, or grazing of animals. Therefore, implementing REDD policy implies forgoing these benefits. So, the rewards must exceed the financial benefits from these drivers of removing the forest cover, if the REDD initiative has to succeed.

The concept of reducing emissions from deforestation (RED) originated from a proposal in 2005 by a group of countries (calling themselves the Coalition for Rainforest Nations) led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica during the 11th Conference of Parties (COP) in Montreal. It found a wide support and an advisory group to explore various options.

Two years later, the proposal was taken up at the Conference of the Parties (COP-13) to the UNFCCC in Bali and RED was expanded to REDD to include forest degradation also in the proposal. Following negotiations the Bali Action Plan came to be known as REDD+. It recognizes the role of “conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries” going beyond deforestation and forest degradation and expanding carbon stock.

Thus, REDD+ includes activities with potentially valuable implications for indigenous people, local communities as well as the forests. It has the potential to simultaneously contribute to climate change mitigation as well as poverty alleviation, whilst conserving biodiversity and sustaining vital ecosystem. REDD+ provides a unique opportunity to achieve large-scale emissions reductions at comparatively low abatement costs.

Who Should Own the Forests?

The best protectors of forests are the people who live there – means indigenous people or forest dwellers because they have local knowledge of the forestry. In last 10 years there is some trend, at least in the Latin America where the forest land has seen transfer from the government to the communities. For instance, in Brazilian Amazon, one-fifth of the forest is now controlled by the communities who live there. Norway has paid Brazil about $ 670 million and Guyana about $ 45 million with more to come under the REDD arrangement. Norway is clearly the world leader as a donor nation, but others are beginning to follow their lead. Local community management is ideal for forest management also for another very good reason – community well-being is closely related to well-being of the forest and its environment.

Skepticism of REDD+ Projects

While the idea of helping poor countries with forests to preserve them sounds good and benevolent. But people well familiar with international politics are not convinced that REDD+ can offer any meaningful solution.

First, it only allows rich countries to continue with their business-as-usual approach and their emission continues. In fact, many see it as a license to continue to pollute. Then there are people who are not comfortable with the idea of carbon trading. They see it as commodification of forests as “bundles of carbon sticks.” It automatically sidelines other important functions forests perform in enriching biodiversity and soil quality. Then there is the issue of people who subsist on forests and even live there. In fact, they have the right knowledge of forest health and are the best custodians of forests.

Is Protecting Forests Just A Financial Issue?

In 2007 when the Bali Climate Change Conference moved REDD forward to REDD+, it was primarily seen as an effort to conserve the vanishing forests. But then the arguments got twisted to turn it into a financial issue. The discourse now revolves around who will provide the finance and how will it be spent? Now when people talk about REDD it appears more like a business transaction than a forest conservation problem. It is here that the confusion starts and the fact that we are discussing a strategy to combat global warming gets obfuscated.

Commonsense demands that well-being of forests is seen in the right perspective – as source of sustainable livelihood for people dependent on it and preserving them to strengthen local ecologies and enriching biodiversity.

Conclusion

The whole idea of rich donors being philanthropic and helping developing countries preserve forests must be seen through the dynamics of world politics. REDD+ must not become an excuse for the rich nations to continue to pollute. They have to actually cut their own emissions, if they are serious about the climate change. Besides, there is much more to forests than carbon. They can ideally become nuclei for efforts for sustainable development.

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Comments 2 comments

phildazz profile image

phildazz 2 years ago from Toronto

Informative and raw! Thanks for high lighting the facts for us, maybe it will bring about a better tomorrow if we learn to appreciate our world.


William R. Wilson profile image

William R. Wilson 5 years ago from Knoxville, TN

Nice hub, maybe a little long for the search engines and the attention span of folks on this site. I'm headed to your profile to follow!

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