The Hidden Cause Of Global Warming
By Daniel Howden
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
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 total.
"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 Mitchell.
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 climate change."
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
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 €200 (£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
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."
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
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