Climate Change as Incentive for Carbon Sequestration through Avoided Deforestation
the entire world is now aware that the global climate is changing. Sea
levels are rising, glaciers and ice sheets are retreating, water and air
temperatures are fluctuating from historic norms, and weather systems
have become more severe. The impact this may have on human civilization
is a subject of much contention, but it is clear already that the ecology
of the planet is under serious stress. Such phenomena as the disappearance
of amphibian species, the bleaching of tropical corals, changes in patterns
of animal migration and earlier plant flowering may be warnings of ever
more serious changes ahead.
Global use of Fossil Fuels
The mechanics of this change are complex, but the unprecedented release
of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned in the ongoing industrialization
of our world is without doubt the primary culprit. Ancient deposits of
coal, petroleum and natural gas have effectively stored excess carbon
deep in the earth for hundreds of millions of years. A balance of supply
and consumption of available carbon has been the very lifeblood of the
biosphere, no place more so than in the once vast tropical forests, sometimes
described as “the lungs of the planet.”
Cycle of Carbon Renewal
Animal respiration, natural decay and other processes oxidize carbon,
releasing it into the air in the form of methane and carbon dioxide gas.
Plant respiration and growth traps carbon in the plant structure and returns
oxygen to the atmosphere. This cycle of carbon renewal has been badly
disrupted by human activity. Just as we are burning these carbon-based
fossil fuels at an ever-accelerating pace, so too have we been rapidly
destroying our forests. The excess carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere
acting like the glass in a greenhouse and changing the solar energy balance
of our planetary home.
Reduction of carbon emissions is the obvious strategy, but human civilization
has become dependent on abundant energy derived mainly from fossil fuels.
While we struggle with the technological and political challenges of reducing
the use of fossil fuels, it would be foolish not to do what we can on
the other side of the equation—increasing the Earth’s carbon-storing
capacity through protection and expansion of existing forests, especially
in the tropics where deforestation has contributed approximately 22 percent
of all human-generated carbon dioxide emissions over the last 20 years
by releasing the stored carbon into the atmosphere.
Time is of the Essence
The complex problem of global climate change demands a multifaceted response.
No single strategy is a “magic bullet.” Only through many
efforts, both large and small, can we hope to have an impact on this tremendous
threat to life on the planet as we know it. But time is of the essence,
and all such mitigations must be undertaken immediately before the problem
worsens. Clearly, reduction of emissions must come through greater efficiencies
in the power, construction and transportation sectors of the global economy,
for which there are many sound existing technologies with promising prospects
for future breakthroughs. But the transformation of the global economy
required to adopt these strategies will require significant political
will, major economic incentives, and time. Similarly, reinvigorating the
planet’s forests to absorb more carbon dioxide will take time, as
trees do not grow overnight. However, reducing—or even eliminating—the
carbon emissions produced by deforestation would have immediate impact.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), now
enshrined as the Kyoto Protocol, is an attempt by the world’s governments
to roll back greenhouse gas emissions by member nations to 1990 levels
as a first start. The authors of the Kyoto Protocol set detailed rules
for its implementation. Under the Land-use, Land-use Change and Forestry
(LULUCF) provision, a “cap and trade system” was adopted,
similar to (and inspired by) the immensely successful US Pollution Credit
Trading Scheme. Under this system, ratifying countries set a “cap”
on emissions then provide for industry to buy or sell surplus credits
under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) protocols. This system allowed
countries or entities actively reforesting land (or even just allowing
cleared or damaged land to reforest itself) to sell “carbon emission
trading credits” for the carbon thus removed from the atmosphere.
In other words, the Kyoto Protocol specifically excluded standing forests
from carbon credit trading thus in effect punishing those nations who
have worked to protect tropical forests from deforestation and perversely,
potentially incentivizing deforestation.
22% of All Human Generated Carbon Emission is From Deforestation
The absurdity of this omission has become apparent since it is now accepted
that 22 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions over the last 20 years
have resulted from deforestation world-wide as the sequestered carbon
dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Fortunately, a correction to
this fundamental flaw is being negotiated pending ratification by the
world’s governments. This revision would acknowledge the vital role
that standing forests, especially tropical forests, play in both reducing
and absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. And it would reward countries
that have been vigilant in protecting their natural forestry resources
by allowing them to benefit from the carbon emissions trading system.
As further incentive, preservation of existing forests provides additional
“environmental services,” such as flood and erosion control,
watershed protection, preservation of scenic beauty, and, perhaps most
valuable of all—the preservation of biodiversity that is the legacy
of a billion years of evolution. Though perhaps not as easily quantified
in monetary terms as carbon sequestration, there is no denying the immense
value of these forest resources when left in place. Nowhere is this more
so than in the tropics, home to more than three-quarters of the planet’s
species and many of its human inhabitants as well.