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Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Real Solution to Deforestation

They've been called "the lungs of the world." The Amazon rainforest and other old growth forests pull tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, slowing global warming. In a 2002 report for one of those BS White House programs that have since gone nowhere, it was estimated that one acre of rainforest can sequester between 6 to 72 tons of carbon.

Last year, the Independent reported, "Scientists say one days' deforestation is equivalent to the carbon footprint of eight million people flying to New York. Reducing those catastrophic emissions can be achieved most quickly and most cheaply by halting the destruction in Brazil, Indonesia, the Congo and elsewhere."

It's always bothered me that people seem to have stopped giving a damn about deforestation somewhere back in the '90s. The Independent piece tells us that deforestation accounts for 25% of all greenhouse gases, "while transport and industry account for 14 per cent each."

And here we are dicking around with emissions on cars. While important, vehicle emissions aren't our biggest problem here. We're losing old growth forests and, as these forests are lost, the carbon sequestered in them is released as the wood rots, burns, or is dried in a kiln for lumber. So deforestation is an environmental double-whammy -- not only are you increasing emissions, but you're losing a method of sequestering future emissions.

Part of the problem is that many of the world's old growth forests are in the developing world. It's easy for us to tell them to knock it off, but hard for them to do so. Rainforests and old timber mean money -- and you don't get that money unless you harvest the wood or clear the land for other industries. So the trees come down, acre after acre, tons of carbon are released and future emissions have nowhere to go but the atmosphere.

But there's another way to make money off trees -- carbon credits. A new study shows that global warming could be a boon to the developing world, by offering them a way to monetize forests without destroying them.

Agence France-Presse:

Global carbon markets could generate billions of dollars each year for developing countries that tackle tropical deforestation, a major source of global warming, according to a new study.

Reducing the rate at which Amazonian rain forests are disappearing by only 10 percent, for example, would yield 1.5 to 9.1 billion euros (2.2 to 13.5 billion dollars), depending on world carbon emission prices, researchers calculated.

That money could then be plowed into national conservation efforts that would further mitigate climate change, creating a virtuous circle.

Slow down deforestation by another 20 percent, and the potential income for the region would top 45 billion dollars if carbon prices reached 30 euros per tonne, said the study, one of two dozen scientific papers on the future of the Amazon released Monday by The Royal Society in Britain.

If paying people to leave stuff alone seems a little weird to you, consider that Al Gore and Sir Richard Branson are offering a $25 million prize to anyone who "comes up with the best way of removing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere." So, if you build some big high-tech carbon filter gizmo, you're a gazillionaire (you'll take the prize and sell the gizmo). But leave acres of trees untouched -- which already removes carbon from the atmosphere -- and you're a chump.

Does that make any sense to you?

The problem is that the time to start doing this is now. The AFP piece tells us, "The UN's Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that rising global temperatures could transform much of South America's rain forests into semi-arid savannah-like areas within five decades." Grasslands don't sequester a lot of carbon -- trees do that. Killing the rainforests will result in higher temperatures which will make any reforestation impossible. Once gone, it's gone -- and we're royally screwed.

Luckily, this sequestration market already exists. Nine US states and several countries have passed legislation to limit carbon emissions. A key part of these laws is a provision called "cap and trade."

Union of Concerned Scientists:

These systems draw on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost-effective and flexible manner. In practice, cap-and-trade systems create a financial incentive for emission reductions by assigning a cost to polluting. First, an environmental regulator establishes a “cap” that limits emissions from a designated group of polluters, such as power plants, to a level lower than their current emissions. The emissions allowed under the new cap are then divided up into individual permits—usually equal to one ton of pollution—that represent the right to emit that amount.

"Because the emissions cap restricts the amount of pollution allowed, permits that give a company the right to pollute take on financial value," we're told. The idea is that companies that operate under their cap can sell their -- I guess you'd have to call it "excess polluting capacity" -- to other industries. If we could bring developing nations into this system, they could sell their sequestration capacity to offset the emissions by polluters. The Amazon alone accounts for a full half of all sequestration capacity on the planet. Add to this further restrictions on emissions and developing technology that commodifies carbon dioxide itself and we could conceivably reduce carbon emissions to near zero.

Meanwhile, we help developing nations create huge national parks or even a new industry of for-profit forestry. The "lungs of the world" would have full-time care.

I can't think of an effort that would have a bigger impact.


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