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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Whatever Happened to Deforestation?

Technorati tags: ; ; ; ; why aren't we talking about when we talk about ?

The latest warnings about global climate change are bad news -- of course, they're always bad news. We're told that it could affect our food supply.

WASHINGTON: Urgent action is needed to make sure a warming climate doesn't slash crop yields, heighten the risk of famine and deepen poverty for the world's most vulnerable, international experts have said.

"Climate change is not just in the future. It's happening now," said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a NASA scientist and co-chair of an international panel on climate change, told a meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Researchers held in Washington.

The group brings together experts from 15 agricultural research centres around the world funded by states, international organisations and private foundations.

By now, the threat of global warming is a familiar one: many scientists believe rising global temperatures, exacerbated by combustion of fossil fuels, will bring warmer, wetter and more violent weather. That in turn is expected to raise sea levels and threaten the life and livelihood of millions, especially in coastal areas.

But farm and food experts gathered for the group's annual meeting this week focused on how climate change will affect harvests.

They said warming could bring more drought and shorter growing seasons to places like Tanzania and Mozambique, increase flooding in coastal areas of countries including Bangladesh, and reduce crop yields in countries like Colombia.

Which makes this good news:

Associated Press:

A swath of Amazon rain forest the size of Alabama was placed under government protection Monday in a region infamous for violent conflicts among loggers, ranchers and environmentalists.

Known as the Guayana Shield, the 57,915-square-mile area contains more than 25 percent of the world's remaining humid tropical forests and the largest remaining unpolluted fresh water reserves in the American tropics.

The protected areas will link to existing reserves to form a vast preservation corridor eventually stretching into neighboring Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

Conservation International put up $1 million to facilitate the expansion, which preserves much of the jungle's largely untouched north. Still, it's far from clear how much the new reserves will do to stall Amazon destruction, since most of the deforestation is taking place along the rain forest's southern border.

"If any tropical rain forest on Earth remains intact a century from now, it will be this portion of northern Amazonia," Conservation International President Russell Mittermeier said. "The region has more undisturbed rain forest than anywhere else."

Of course, it's not nearly enough, but it's a nice start.

But it points out something that I've been noticing for some time. We talk about alternative energies and fuel efficiency, reduced carbon emissions and carbon offsets, but one thing that seems to have completely dropped from the discussion is deforestation. Without addressing deforestation, we could become an otherwise carbon neutral world (i.e., one that reduces carbon emissions by the same amount as its carbon output) and still see a rise in greenhouse gases.

Forests filter carbon from the atmosphere and, like any filter, it doesn't magically make it go away -- it's absorbed by the forest. According to NASA:

Deforestation increases the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other trace gases in the atmosphere. The plants and soil of tropical forests hold 460-575 billion metric tons of carbon worldwide with each acre of tropical forest storing about 180 metric tons of carbon. When a forest is cut and burned to establish cropland and pastures, the carbon that was stored in the tree trunks (wood is about 50% carbon) joins with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere as CO2.

It's estimated that from "1850 to 1990, deforestation worldwide (including the United States) released 122 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, with the current rate being approximately 1.6 billion metric tons per year."

Yet, deforestation has fallen by the wayside in the discussion. It's so ten years ago. We can offset some of the deforestation by using renewable materials other than timber -- bamboo, recycled paper pulp, etc. But the main reason that forests are cleared has nothing to do with timber. Forest land is cleared to make room for farming and ranching, for the most part. Ironically, the land is usually unsuited for these uses. Rain forests are very competitive systems and nutrients are quickly reabsorbed into the ecosystem. Most of the nutrients are in the top inch of soil, with the rest being mostly inorganic -- remove the rain forest and that thin layer of nutrients is used up very quickly and even lost through erosion, leaving farmland that's mostly sand or other minerals and grazing lands barely able to sustain grass. So more land is cleared as the older fields become less fertile.

What we need are incentives to keep forested areas forested. And that means we need to think about things like a global farm subsidy program to third world nations. If that sounds massive, it's not. Since rain forests are unsuited for farming, the farmed land represents a relatively small number of people. New clear cutting is, in large part, the result of land being abandoned for more fertile acres, so it's not really much of a growth industry.

My main point, though, is that deforestation needs to be part of the discussion. If our solutions are focused solely on carbon output, we don't do a damned thing to reverse the damage we've done already. And, to return to the first story I cited, if global warming hurts farm yields, deforestation will likely accelerate as people try to offset lower yields with larger farms.

We really need to bring deforestation back into the discussion.


1 comment:

Friend of Isha Foundation said...

I agree that more than technology we need to look at ways to keep what we have that is balancing the earth. There are initiatives by some organizations to attempt to undo the effects of deforestation.

For example in India, Isha Foundation let an effort called "Project Green Hands" that set a new Guiness Book World record for the most new trees planted in one day, getting a large number of volunteers to plant and care for trees, in an attempt to grow back many of the trees which have been cut down. If more initiatives like this took off, including ways to make smart buildings that integrated with the environment, we might be able to undo much of the damage of this last century over time.