Climate and the rainforest

Civilization Museum Ceiling

Picture a square of tropical rainforest 100m to a side. According to a study from 2000, it is heavily laden with carbon: between 155 and 187 tonnes for wet forest and between 27 and 63 tonnes for dry. That means that each square kilometre of rainforest is holding between 2,700 and 18,700 tonnes of carbon: with about 70% of that in trees, 20% in the soil, and the rest in roots, understory, and litter.

Cutting down the trees for timber and to open farmland releases some portion of that stock into the atmosphere: with the amount dependent on how the soil’s carbon absorption changes and what is done with the wood and wood waste. When the forest is burned, either intentionally to clear land or unintentionally, the bulk of that carbon gets released into the atmosphere more of less immediately. As a result of both land use change and forest burning, the World Resource Institute estimates that deforestation represents about 18.3% of all human greenhouse gas emissions. As such, tackling it is a priority.

Arguably, the best thing individuals can do is refuse to eat meat or use first-generation biofuels. A considerable amount of cattle production takes placed in cleared areas of rainforest, with additional land cleared to grow soya to feed to cattle. On the biofuels front, there are both situations where rainforest is cleared directly for biofuel plantations (palm oil) and situations where the use of agricultural land to grow biofuel crops (corn) increases the overall need for agricultural land, pushing things like soy production into previously forested areas.

One other element to be aware of is the connection between population growth, urbanization, and deforestation. Several states actively encourage people to relocate from crowded areas to more sparsely populated zones bordering forested areas. Indonesia has sought to shift people away from Java in the same way Brazil has encouraged development in the Amazon to try to reduce crowding in the south.

Addressing deforestation is thus a two-fold proposition. In the first instance, the developed world needs to be aware of how commercial activities directly encourage deforestation. Restricting the use of tropical hardwoods, encouraging vegetarianism and veganism, and improving public transit would all help. Secondly, developing states must be encouraged to value their forests at a level high enough to prevent their destruction. That will probably require some kind of international financial instrument whereby the states actually protecting forests receive payments from all the states that benefit from ecological services those forests provide. The latter is a more wide-ranging solution, but the former can be more immediately implemented. If we are to keep that carbon in rich tropical soil and majestic tree trunks, action on both fronts needs to be undertaken.


Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Climate and the rainforest”

  1. Palm oil warning for Indonesia

    Land clearances in Indonesia to meet the growing global demand for palm oil pose a serious threat to the environment, a report has warned.

    Forests are being burned and peat wetlands drained for plantations, causing huge releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Greenpeace said.

  2. Perhaps it’s time to start punitive tarriffs on unsustainably harvested tropical hardwoods, palm oil, and rainforest beef and soy products. I remember in the late 80s McDonalds yielded to public pressure and stopped buying Brazilian beef, back when the public cared about the burning of the Amazon.

    Of course, I highly doubt that per capita emissions from Brazil, even taking deforestation into account, are as high as per capita emissions from just private vehicles in Canada. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning just how completely private cars and trucks dominate BC’s carbon emissions. While stopping the burning of the Amazon is an admirable goal, and not eating meat of any kind certainly helps, I think the simplest way for us to get our own house in order is to get private cars off our roads as fast as is feasible. And maybe, if we are really ambitious, sucessfully protecting our own rainforest, which we often forget is disappearing easily as fast as the Amazon.

  3. Another thought just occured to me. I’m wondering if any land cleared from the Amazon is used to grow sugarcane for ethanol, and if so, how that affects it’s status as arguably the cleanest currently economical biofuel.

  4. FAR above the treetops, in Indonesia’s remote Papuan provinces, the spotter planes are circling. They are looking for a place to strip the forest and produce the big cash crop of the moment: palm oil. And if not palm oil then jatropha, cassava or sugar cane, all of which can be used as either food or biofuel. With the price of oil so high these crops have become known as green gold, and they are being sought in some of the last remaining tracts of virgin rainforest in Asia.

    Few of the Papuan tribesmen who live in these forests have any idea what the planes up above are doing. Nor do they realise that the future of their land for ten generations could well be determined by the people flying them.

    On one side, the Indonesian government wants to become the world’s biggest producer of palm oil and seems ready to sign a number of multi-million hectare concessions—lasting up to 100 years—on Papuan land. The contracts are worth around $8.5 billion. Opposing them are many governments around the world, who worry about the carbon emissions such deforestation would invite. And on another side still is the regional Papuan government, which has its own ideas about what should be done with the land. In the middle of all this are the people who actually live in the forest. Nobody seems quite certain what they want.

  5. Paying to save trees
    Last gasp for the forest

    Sep 24th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    A new climate treaty could provide a highly effective way to reduce carbon emissions by paying people to not cut down forests

    IN THE south-eastern corner of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, in the municipality of Novo Aripuanã, there is thick forest cover—for now. But as new, paved highways are driven into the trees, illegal loggers inevitably follow. At the current rate of deforestation, around one-third of the forest in Amazonas will have been lost by 2050, releasing a colossal 3.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

    At the moment, carbon emissions from deforestation account for some 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, more than all the world’s trains, cars, lorries, aeroplanes and ships combined

    Preventing deforestation does not simply involve close monitoring of forests themselves. Mr Bosquet of the World Bank thinks the forces driving deforestation “are mostly outside the forest sector and are the big challenge for REDD.” Dr Câmara points out that in Brazil 90% of deforestation is illegal encroachment driven by the desire to make money from timber and agricultural products grown on cleared land, such as soyabeans. Rather than paying money to criminals, he says, international traders should refuse to buy timber, soyabeans and beef from deforested land. A number of schemes try to certify that products such as timber or palm oil have been produced without causing deforestation. But so far the results have been disappointing: European consumers are reluctant to pay premium prices for goods made from certified timber, for example.

  6. Climate change and forests
    Touch wood
    Everyone agrees on the need to save trees, but the details are still tricky

    Dec 17th 2009 | COPENHAGEN | From The Economist print edition

    WHATEVER else historians say about the Copenhagen talks on climate change, they may be remembered as a time when the world concluded that it must protect forests, and pay for them. In the Kyoto protocol of 1997, forests were a big absentee: that was partly because sovereignty-conscious nations like Brazil were unwilling, at any price, to accept limits on their freedom to fell.

    All that is history. As the UN talks went into their second week, trees looked like being one of the few matters on which governments could more or less see eye to eye. Over the past two years, skilful campaigning by pro-forest groups has successfully disseminated the idea that trees cannot be ignored in any serious deliberation on the planet’s future.

    Most people at the summit accepted the case that is endlessly made by friends of the forest: cutting down trees contributes up to 20% of global greenhouse emissions, and avoiding this loss would be a quick, cheap way of limiting heat-trapping gases. Unless forests are better protected, so their argument goes, dangerous levels of climate change look virtually inevitable.

    On December 16th six rich nations gave advocates of that view a boost when they pledged $3.5 billion as a down payment on a much larger effort to “slow, halt and eventually reverse” deforestation in poor countries. The benefactors—Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Britain and the United States—endorsed tree protection in terms that went beyond the immediate need to stem emissions. Keeping trees standing would protect biodiversity and help development of the right sort, they said.

  7. Seeing the world for the trees
    An international deal on deforestation makes it ever more important to measure the Earth’s woodlands

    PERU’S forests cover 72m hectares of the country (278,000 square miles). That is three times the area of Britain. And Peru intends to hold on to its greenery. In 2000 its deforestation rate was 250,000 hectares a year. By 2005 that figure was down to 150,000. This year, according to Antonio Brack Egg, the country’s environment minister, it will be 90,000. In 2021, if all goes well, it will be zero.

    To make sure things stay on course, Dr Brack says, the government needs to spend more than $100m a year on high-resolution satellite pictures of its billions of trees. But he hopes that a computing facility developed by the Planetary Skin Institute (PSI), a not-for-profit organisation set up by Cisco Systems, a large computing firm, and America’s space agency, NASA, might help cut that budget.

    The PSI’s Automated Land-change Evaluation, Reporting and Tracking System, ALERTS, is one of several tools being developed to assess the extent and health of forests and other ecosystems. These tools should make the implementation of a deal on reducing deforestation called REDD+, agreed on at the United Nations’ climate-change conference in Cancún on December 11th (see article), easier to monitor. The PSI’s intention is to apply the world’s ever-increasing supply of information to the problem of its ever-dwindling natural resources by merging data of different types. ALERTS, which was launched at Cancún, uses data from NASA’s MODIS cameras (of which two are currently in orbit) data-mining algorithms developed at the University of Minnesota and a lot of computing power from Cisco’s “cloud” of machines to spot places where land use has changed.

  8. Cutting down on cutting down

    How Brazil became the world leader in reducing environmental degradation

    But how did it break the vicious cycle in which—it was widely expected—farmers and cattle ranchers (the main culprits in the Amazon) would make so much money from clearing the forest that they would go on cutting down trees until there were none left? After all, most other rainforest countries, such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have failed to stop the chainsaws. The answer, according to a paper just published in Science by Dan Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute in San Francisco, is that there was no silver bullet but instead a three-stage process in which bans, better governance in frontier areas and consumer pressure on companies worked, if fitfully and only after several false starts.

    The first stage ran from the mid-1990s to 2004. This was when the government put its efforts into bans and restrictions. The Brazilian Forest Code said that, on every farm in the Amazon, 80% of the land had to be set aside as a forest reserve. As the study observes, this share was so high that the code could not be complied with—or enforced. This was the period of the worst deforestation. Soyabean prices were high and there was a vast expansion of soyabean farming and cattle ranching on the south-eastern fringe of the rainforest.

    During the second stage, which ran from 2005 to 2009, the government tried to boost its ability to police the Amazon. Brazil’s president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, made stopping deforestation a priority, which resulted in better co-operation between different bits of the government, especially the police and public prosecutors. The area in which farming was banned was increased from a sixth to nearly half of the forest.

    The third stage, which began in 2009, was a test of whether a regime of restrictions could survive as soyabean expansion resumed. The government shifted its focus from farms to counties (each state has scores of these). Farmers in the 36 counties with the worst deforestation rates were banned from getting cheap credit until those rates fell. The government also set up a proper land registry, requiring landowners to report their properties’ boundaries to environmental regulators. There was a cattle boycott modelled on the soya one. And for the first time, there were rewards as well as punishments: an amnesty for illegal clearances before 2008 and money from a special $1 billion Amazon Fund financed by foreign aid.

  9. Encouraging countries to plant trees (or discouraging them from logging) is by far the most effective way of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. If Brazil had kept on felling trees as rapidly as it was cutting them down in 2005, it would, by 2013, have put an extra 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That means that over those eight years it managed to save six times as much carbon as ultra-green Germany did in the same period through one of the world’s most expensive renewable-energy regimes. As a way of helping the environment, protecting trees is hard to beat. It is in everyone’s interest to find out which forest policies work—and back them.

  10. From 2004 to 2012 the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed. The government’s environmental protection agency, Ibama, was strengthened. Other countries, and global ngos, nagged and encouraged; in 2008 an international Amazon Fund was created to help pay for protection. Not a moment too soon, said rainforest scientists. They had begun to suspect that, if tree loss passed a certain threshold, the deforestation would start to feed on itself. Beyond this tipping-point, forest cover would keep shrinking whatever humans might try to do to stop it. Eventually much of the basin would be drier savannah, known as cerrado. As well as spelling extinction for tens of thousands of species, that devastation would change weather patterns over much of South America and release into the atmosphere tens of billions of tonnes of carbon, worsening global warming.

    This is what has led to worries about tipping-points. In an influential paper in 2007 Gilvan Sampaio and Carlos Nobre of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research forecast that, were 40% of the forest to perish, the loss of water-recycling capacity would mean very little of the rest would have enough rainfall to survive.

    Over the past 50 years 17% of the rainforest has been lost, some way from the 40% tipping-point proposed in 2007. But last year Mr Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University, after taking account of climate change and fire as well as deforestation, revised the estimate of the threshold to 20-25%. That is uncomfortably close to today’s figure. Mr Nobre says the recent droughts and floods could be the “first flickers” of permanent change. Carlos Rittl of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a consortium of research outfits, expects Mr Bolsonaro’s tenure to see deforestation pass 20%. If Mr Lovejoy and Mr Nobre are right, that could be disastrous—once the tipping-point is transgressed, much of the rest of the forest could follow in just a matter of decades.

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