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.