Deforestation: The hidden cause of global warming
In the next 24 hours, deforestation will release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as
8 million people flying from London to New York. Stopping the loggers is the fastest
and cheapest solution to climate change. So why are global leaders turning a blind
eye to this crisis?
By Daniel Howden
Published: 14 May 2007
The accelerating destruction of the rainforests that form a precious cooling band
around the Earth’s equator, is now being recognised as one of the main causes of
climate change. Carbon emissions from deforestation far outstrip damage caused by
planes and automobiles and factories.
The rampant slashing and burning of tropical forests is second only to the energy
sector as a source of greenhouses gases according to report published today by the
Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of leading rainforest scientists.
Figures from the GCP, summarising the latest findings from the United Nations, and
building on estimates contained in the Stern Report, show deforestation accounts for
up to 25 per cent of global emissions of heat-trapping gases, while transport and
industry account for 14 per cent each; and aviation makes up only 3 per cent of the
“Tropical forests are the elephant in the living room of climate change,” said
Andrew Mitchell, the head of the GCP.
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.
No new technology is needed, says the GCP, just the political will and a system of
enforcement and incentives that makes the trees worth more to governments and
individuals standing than felled. “The focus on technological fixes for the
emissions of rich nations while giving no incentive to poorer nations to stop
burning the standing forest means we are putting the cart before the horse,” said Mr
Most people think of forests only in terms of the CO2 they absorb. The rainforests
of the Amazon, the Congo basin and Indonesia are thought of as the lungs of the
planet. But the destruction of those forests will in the next four years alone, in
the words of Sir Nicholas Stern, pump more CO2 into the atmosphere than every flight
in the history of aviation to at least 2025.
Indonesia became the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world last
week. Following close behind is Brazil. Neither nation has heavy industry on a
comparable scale with the EU, India or Russia and yet they comfortably outstrip all
other countries, except the United States and China.
What both countries do have in common is tropical forest that is being cut and
burned with staggering swiftness. Smoke stacks visible from space climb into the sky
above both countries, while satellite images capture similar destruction from the
Congo basin, across the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic
and the Republic of Congo.
According to the latest audited figures from 2003, two billion tons of CO2 enters
the atmosphere every year from deforestation. That destruction amounts to 50 million
acres – or an area the size of England, Wales and Scotland felled annually.
The remaining standing forest is calculated to contain 1,000 billion tons of carbon,
or double what is already in the atmosphere.
As the GCP’s report concludes: “If we lose forests, we lose the fight against
Standing forest was not included in the original Kyoto protocols and stands outside
the carbon markets that the report from the International Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) pointed to this month as the best hope for halting catastrophic warming.
The landmark Stern Report last year, and the influential McKinsey Report in January
agreed that forests offer the “single largest opportunity for cost-effective and
immediate reductions of carbon emissions”.
International demand has driven intensive agriculture, logging and ranching that has
proved an inexorable force for deforestation; conservation has been no match for
commerce. The leading rainforest scientists are now calling for the immediate
inclusion of standing forests in internationally regulated carbon markets that could
provide cash incentives to halt this disastrous process.
Forestry experts and policy makers have been meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week to
try to put deforestation on top of the agenda for the UN climate summit in Bali,
Indonesia, this year. Papua New Guinea, among the world’s poorest nations, last year
declared it would have no choice but to continue deforestation unless it was given
financial incentives to do otherwise.
Richer nations already recognise the value of uncultivated land. The EU offers Ã¢â€šÂ¬200
(Ã‚Â£135) per hectare subsidies for “environmental services” to its farmers to leave
their land unused.
And yet there is no agreement on placing a value on the vastly more valuable land in
developing countries. More than 50 per cent of the life on Earth is in tropical
forests, which cover less than 7 per cent of the planet’s surface.
They generate the bulk of rainfall worldwide and act as a thermostat for the Earth.
Forests are also home to 1.6 billion of the world’s poorest people who rely on them
for subsistence. However, forest experts say governments continue to pursue science
fiction solutions to the coming climate catastrophe, preferring bio-fuel subsidies,
carbon capture schemes and next-generation power stations.
Putting a price on the carbon these vital forests contain is the only way to slow
their destruction. Hylton Philipson, a trustee of Rainforest Concern, explained: “In
a world where we are witnessing a mounting clash between food security, energy
security and environmental security – while there’s money to be made from food and
energy and no income to be derived from the standing forest, it’s obvious that the
forest will take the hit.”
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Published online: 17 May 2007; | doi:10.1038/news070514-18
Polar ocean is sucking up less carbon dioxide
Windy waters may mean less greenhouse gas is stored at sea.
The ability of the Southern Ocean to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is being eroded by climate change, say environmental researchers. If the trend continues, then the ability of this ‘carbon sink’ to deal with humankind’s greenhouse emissions will be impaired.
Roughly half of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere is absorbed by the world’s oceans, so as greenhouse emissions increase, the amount taken up by the oceans should increase in proportion. But the new research suggests that the Southern Ocean is not keeping pace with rising emissions. These Antarctic waters are an important sink for carbon dioxide, thanks to ocean currents and cold temperatures – they are thought to account for some 15% of the world’s oceanic carbon-storage capacity.
Researchers led by Corinne Le Quéré of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany, took data from 11 coastal monitoring stations in Antarctica and on islands in the Southern Ocean to measure the amount of carbon dioxide being stored and released by the ocean. They then compared this measurements of global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to work out the change in the performance of the carbon sink.
Since 1981, the percentage of atmospheric carbon dioxide that the Southern Ocean can hold has decreased, the researchers report in a study published online by Science (1). The trend suggests that, for each decade, the annual capacity of the ocean to store carbon has gone down by 0.08 gigatonnes compared with expectations. On average, the ocean stores between 0.1 and 0.6 gigatonnes a year.
This is a small amount compared with the roughly 8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide pumped out each year by human activities such as energy generation. But any decline is important, as oceans are an important long-term sink. If humans can bring carbon dioxide emissions under control in the long term, the world’s oceans are predicted to sequester between 70% and 80% of the total net anthropogenic emissions of the industrial era.
Winds of change
The main cause of the changes seems to be a relatively rapid increase in average wind strengths over the Southern Ocean, Le Quéré and her team report. These stronger winds, thought to be driven by the depletion of the ozone layer over Antarctic regions, churn up the ocean and bring more dissolved carbon up from the depths.
This was unexpected, says Le Quéré. But when the researchers plugged their data into a computer model and removed these stronger winds, they did indeed find that much of the observed reduction in the carbon sink disappeared.
An increase in global temperature is predicted to worsen the effect, since warmer waters hold less gas.
South to north
“The possibility that in a warmer world the Southern Ocean – the strongest ocean sink – is weakening, is a cause for concern,” comments Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK.
The Southern Ocean is the only body of water for which this trend has been definitely spotted and quantified, says Le Quéré, although shorter-term studies suggest that a similar process may be occurring in the North Atlantic.
If the phenomenon is happening world-wide, this would undoubtedly affect efforts to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases.
A reduction in sink capacities will make it harder for international efforts, such as carbon trading and changes in methods of energy generation, to set achievable targets for stabilizing greenhouse-gas levels. But Le Quéré says that such efforts now need to be redoubled, rather than accepting that greenhouse gas levels will be higher in future. “Targets should depend on the level of danger [from global warming],” she says.
1. Le Quéré C., et al. Science, doi:10.1126/science.1136188 (2007).
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Animals depend on plants. Large-scale extinction of plants is certain to topple the numbers of animals.
“The group argues for a re-definition of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), adopted by the UN in 2000, to respond more effectively to the realities of climate change.”
” … as environments change faster than plant species can migrate, scientists estimate that in less than 80 years up to half of Europe’s plant species could be under threat and a massive 60% of mountain species may have vanished.”
people and biodiversity
Botanists sound plant extinction alert
Posted: 19 Sep 2006
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With fears that one in four of the world’s plant species could already be on the brink of extinction from the effects of global climate change – and as many as half of the planet’s estimated 400,000 plant species facing a similarly bleak future – a group of leading plant scientists have called for a global action plan to tackle the impending crisis.
“While the impact of climate change on iconic animal species, such as polar bears, is well recognised,” says Sara Oldfield, Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which is co-ordinating the initiative, “the threat that global warming poses to plant diversity is often overlooked and this could have serious consequences for the future of the planet.”
This new declaration from The Gran Canaria Group, whose membership is drawn from biodiversity conservation organisations around the world, calls on the international community to take urgent action to protect global plant diversity.
It sets out guidelines for action and stresses the role of botanic gardens in delivering the conservation message to their over 200 million annual visitors and in safeguarding their collections of wild plants as native habitats vanish.
Climate change concerns include the use of natural vegetation in water management and carbon offsetting and the vital defensive work of coastal ecosystems in the face of rising sea levels and extreme weather events.
The declaration calls for immediate conservation action to protect plant species most at risk from climate change. Priority must also be given
* Development of more detailed climate change models to detect potentially threatened species
* Use of adaptive management strategies in vulnerable ecosystems
* Management of existing natural vegetation to maintain carbon stocks and the monitoring of new plantings intended to offset carbon emissions to ensure their ecological suitability.
The group argues for a re-definition of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), adopted by the UN in 2000, to respond more effectively to the realities of climate change. And it wants the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC)to be closely involved in this process.
The terrifying implications of plant extinctions for the future of humankind and the wellbeing of the planet simply cannot be underestimated, the scientists believe and time, they argue, is running out.
A recent study of four of the worldí¨s most important food crops, rice, potato, peanut and cowpea, predicts that climate change over the next fifty years will have a devastating impact on their wild relatives, which harbour the genetic diversity that may enable cultivated crops to adapt to changing climatic conditions. By 2055, says the research, up to a quarter of all potato, peanut and cowpea species could become extinct and over 50 per cent of the land area currently suitable for their cultivation could be gone.
“Maintaining the genetic diversity that exists among the wild plant population is absolutely essential if we are to have any chance of mitigating the effects of climate change,” says Emile Frison, Director General of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), a co-signatory of the declaration. “And this is not just a plant problem, but a human one too. Plants are key to human survival, not just for food, but medicines and many other essential materials.”
And as environments change faster than plant species can migrate, scientists estimate that in less than 80 years up to half of Europe’s plant species could be under threat and a massive 60% of mountain species may have vanished.
“We have to step up to the challenge now, at every level, if we are to make a difference,” warns BGCI’s Sara Oldfield. “The impact of global climate change on plants and habitats is already being felt and unless we do something about it urgently, the implications for all life on earth are bound to be severe.”
Source: BCGI, September 7th 2006
A PDF of the Gran Canaria Declaration II on Climate Change and Plant Conservation is available at www.bgci.org
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