Forests and climate change

At the dawn of agriculture, about 8000 years ago, half of the planet’s surface was covered by vast tracts of forests. Since then almost half of them have been lost. Massive clearing and development for agriculture, the building of cities and roads and the recent growth in industries have left the forests in tatters and almost non-existent in some places. Needless to say, this has endangered the ecological balance and has been the cause of many disasters in the recent past. This rather alarming situation poses an enormous challenge for climate policy and action.

State of World Forests mapped by World Resources Institute

Forests are the natural regulators of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus both sequestering vast quantities as they grow (sinks) and releasing it upon harvest or burning. It is estimated that deforestation generates about 20% of the annual CO2 emissions globally, second only to fossil fuels. It doesn’t help the fact that emissions may be immediate, but re-absorption takes thousands of years. Thus the global need to maintain and perpetuate forests as carbon sinks has been addressed in Article 2 of the Kyoto Protocol (1997).

‘…Protection and enhancement of sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, taking into account its commitments under relevant international environmental agreements; promotion of sustainable forest management practices, afforestation and reforestation’

As we marshal our resources to address the climate change, it is particularly insightful to note that the costs of avoiding deforestation, carbon emission reductions from forests can be achieved at only a fraction of the cost of other sequestration and energy efficiency techniques. Assuming a conservation cost of $500 to $1000 per acre and using a discount rate of 3% on 75 million acres of forestland would protect more than 5.4 billion tons of carbon at a cost of $4 to $8 per ton, only 1% of the cost of energy efficiency tons funded underAmerican Recovery and Reinvestment Plan (projected to cost more than $23.1 billion to achieve emission reductions of 50 million tons of carbon).

In addition to the containment of degradation and reforestation, forest management should focus on longer harvest intervals to allow carbon stocks to increase with forest age as older forests contain more carbon. This would not only lead to better yields of timber but also provide the farmer with greater carbon credits from the market. Another area of focus should be to avoid leakage – the unanticipated loss of carbon reductions outside the project boundary. For example, the reforestation of pastureland may drive local farmers to clear forests elsewhere for new pastures.

Without doubt, conservation and restoration of forests are key components of any comprehensive approach to achieving the primary goals of the climate policy. The trickle down benefits from this exercise such as the conservation of biodiversity, protection of watersheds and economic opportunities for the local populace should reinforce this commitment to make earth a better place for the future generations to come.



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4 responses to “Forests and climate change

  1. fannydufrois

    As I was 13 years old, I made a road trip with my whole family in Madagascar. One of the things that I was really impressed about was how they burn all their forests just to obtain some soils that are more prolific. Called to Madagascar “tavy”, the slash-and-burn cultivation is an important part of the agriculture and the economy Malagasy. The “tavy” is especially used to convert the rain forest in rice fields. For example, we cut one or two acres of forests; we burn them, before planting some rice there. After one or two years of production, the plot of land is left with the hanging rest 4 – 6 years, and then we repeat the process. At the end of 2 or 3 cycles, nutriments of the ground are exhausted and the ground is invaded by bushes.

    The “tavy” is the safest way for the Malagasies to meet the needs of their family; considering the state of poverty in which they live, the long-term consequences of their actions are not their first concern. From their point of view, if it stays of the forest to be burned, so it is worth to make it before the neighbors. The “tavy” with the aim of the culture of the rice has cultural and spiritual backgrounds which go beyond the economic and nutritional value of the rice.

    At present, we estimate between 200 and 500 millions the number of persons who practice this type of agriculture worldwide. Mostly established within rain forests, this farming is deeply criticized by the international community today. Since the Earth summit of Rio, in 1992, the Organization of Nations United for the food and the agriculture (FAO) considers that this agrarian model participates in the deforestation and in the global warming by facilitating the leak of carbon in the atmosphere.

    However I found a study that was led by a team of the IRD and their Laotian partners of the national Research institute on the agriculture and the forest (NAFRI), in a hilly region of the North Laos, demonstrates on the contrary that the itinerant agriculture on slash-and-burn field would facilitate the storage of the organic carbon. The analysis of the first centimeters of the fertile layer of a hillside of 2 hectares indeed proves that the organic carbon accumulates important quantity in the most steep part of the agricultural plot of land. These results show that the preservation of the itinerant agriculture on slash-and-burn field can play a key role in the limitation of the greenhouse effect bound to the human activities. So maybe deforestation is not that bad….

  2. mhapsari

    Coming from Indonesia, this topic immediately has my attention since Indonesia is unfortunately experiencing one of the highest rates of tropical forest loss in the world. Without adequate reforestation efforts, both legal and illegal logging, mostly to satisfy exports, continue to be the main cause. Regulations in this case do not have a lot of effect due to the geographical challenges and corrupted government officials. As a result, during the years 1950 t0 2000, 40% of Indonesian forests were loss (source:

    Overall, deforestation continues to be a critical issue especially in developing countries with a rapid economic development with demands of natural resources from the forests. Here in Austin we have the Rainforest Partnership (, a non-profit to protect tropical rain forests from deforestations by guiding local communities to achieve economic independence in alternative means which are not hurting the environment. The main focuses of the partnership are Central and South America with two current projects being executed in Peru and Ecuador.

    As the above posting stated, since deforestation causes such effect to the climate change, it is more a global issue than a domestic one. One of the international policies being implemented are by providing incentives for deforestation projects with funding from the international (Kyoto) carbon markets. This mechanism triggers private business to be more environmentally aware and support the efforts of governments and non profit organizations, such as the Rainforest Partnership, to really put deforestation as one of the main problems in today’s environment.

  3. lmmlima

    The forest benefits go beyond carbon regulator. Entire societies around the globe rely on forest resources to survive. Rainforests also help to prolong human race, over 25% of the medicines come from them. According to [1] the deforestation causes the extinction of 50 to 100 species every day which means less genetic resources. We might be destroying the cure for many diseases.

    Since 1990’s Brazil and Indonesia have the higher shares in deforestation. The Amazon rainforest deforestation is mostly driven by the cattle industry while in Indonesia the main cause is the palm oil industry. The good news is that global forest loss have been decreasing since 2004. Moreover, in 2009, the lowest level of deforestation since 1980s was reached as a result of the global financial crisis that contributed to the crash in commodities price [2].

    Recently, US and Brazil signed an agreement to work together to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) as part of an effort to reduce climate change [3]. In many parts of the world, governments have given incentives for reforestation projects. China is an example with an increase of 47 million hectares in forest area since 1970 [4].

    The cruel truth is that unless the local farmers find something more profitable they are not going to stop harvesting. So, we need more policies and laws to increase protected areas as well as to create special environment educational programs for these landowners.

  4. douuugdougdoug

    “Imagine if you took all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world and added up their exhaust every year. The amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2, all those cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships collectively emit into the atmosphere is actually less than the carbon emissions every year that result from the chopping down and clearing of tropical forests in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo.” -Thomas Friedman, NY Times 11-11-2009

    It true, deforestation has extremely high carbon emissions. And like lmmlima said, it is often economically infeasible for the farmers to cut production. Another thing that lmmlima mentioned was cattle. The global demand for meat has grown, especially among developing nations like India and China, where it has grown more than 33% in the past ten years.

    “I’m not sure that the system we have for livestock can be sustainable,” said Dr. Pachauri of the United Nations. He says people should eat less meat to control their carbon footprints. “We haven’t come to grips with agricultural emissions.”

    Is future policy required for the matter? In the United States, even political statements implying what people should or should not eat could have incredibly disastrous political ramifications. Could there ever be the inclusion of agriculture emissions in carbon cap-and-trade systems?

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