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Forests: Crucial And Vital Role
To Combat Climate Change

By Marianne de Nazareth

20 October, 2009

Have you recently taken a trip through the Western Ghats in Southern India and admired the natural forests that cover the Ghats? However if you have travelled the same route over decades it is obvious that with the mining and cutting down of the trees, the deforestation of the hills is being manifest at an alarming rate. And deforestation, is one of the major causes of global warming and climate change.

Tropical forests cover about 15 percent of the world’s land surface and contain about 25 percent of the carbon in the terrestrial biosphere. But they are being rapidly degraded and deforested like the Indian Ghats, which results in the emission of heat and trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Roughly 13 million hectares, an area the size of Nicaragua is deforested and converted into other land use every year in the world.

According to research done by the Global Canopy Programme which is an alliance of 37 scientific institutions in 19 countries, this loss accounts for around a fifth of global carbon emissions making land cover change the second largest contributor to global warming. Forests therefore play a crucial and vital role in any initiative to combat climate change.

Forests are also home to local communities and support the livelihood of 90 percent of the billions living below the poverty line. In the Ghats, tribes depend on the forests as a source of fuel, food, medicinal herbs and a source of income by selling natural produce like honey and wild fruit. The loss of these forests puts the very survival of these indigenous people at risk. Well managed nature plays an important role in both climate change adaptation and mitigation. “ Nature can offer solutions that are available to the rural poor in particular, that are cost effective and sustainable,” says IUCN’s(International Union for Conservation of Nature) Climate Change coordinator, Ninni Ikkala. “ The potential of forests in reducing emissions is well known, whilst for example well managed mangroves can reduce flood impacts in low lying areas.”

Another new development is that despite scientific support, the protection of intact natural forests is under threat of conversion into plantations. These plantations will be periodically culled for their timber. Protection of natural forests and the rights of indigenous people are crucial for the well being of our planet. These indigenous people are stewards of the forest and provide vital ecosystem services, for the rest of the planet. As we can see it happening all around us already, Climate Change will hit the poorest the worst and so a concerted reduction in deforestation will help build natural resilience to climate impacts.

The reasons for deforestation are varied and multiple from country to country. In Asia, communities use forests to provide sources for food, fuel and farmland. Trees are cut down to make way for agriculture driven by consumer demand. In Africa, it is due to small scale subsistence farming. In South America, the reason is large scale farming to produce beef and soy for export markets. In South East Asia, the reasons for deforestation is clearing of land to grow palm oil, coffee and timber which is also a large scale export product.

If countries are able to comprehend that forests provide services which go beyond carbon storage alone, they would fiercely protect their forests. Forests afford watershed protection, water flow regulation, nutrient recycling, rainfall generation and disease regulation. Old growth forests also soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting anthropogenic emissions. “There is also another important reason to protect old forests – they have what is known as a double cooling effect, by reducing carbon emissions and maintaining high levels of evaporation from the canopy,” says Charlie Parker, Global Canopy Programme's Policy Analyst and author of “The Little REDD Book”

Is REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation ) a solution to helping the world cut back drastically on carbon emissions without too much research and development efforts? Basically the idea behind REDD is to financially compensate those countries, willing to curb deforestation and thereby reduce the world’s emissions. Previous efforts to curb deforestation have been unsuccessful, however the REDD agreement under the UNFCCC provides objectives to protect primary forests in developing countries.

In the Bangkok talks there were protests against REDD being a mechanism to ‘co2lonialise forests.’ Annoyed remarks by a group called the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change said “ The CDM and carbon market are instruments that commodify the atmosphere. Cut emissions at the source.” There were also protests that industrial logging should not be categorised as “Sustainable Forest Management” (SFM) considering the term- ill defined. However, REDD does provide an opportunity to break the cycle of harvesting timber for industrial use, by placing an economic value on the role of standing forests in climate change mitigation.

“ We know how to use REDD, we don’t have to wait for the development of low carbon technologies,” says IUCN’s Director of Environment and Development, Stewart Maginnis. “ New science shows it’s more urgent than ever to act now; we can’t wait to stop reducing green house gas emissions.”

Hopefully with an effective REDD mechanism in place, carbon emissions will be curbed by protection of primary forests, restoration of degraded forests will be encouraged, besides looking at alternatives to industrial logging. All this can be successfully achieved working alongside indigenous people and forest dependant communities, who will naturally prevent encroachment and illegal activities.

REDD seems to be our best chance at saving the worlds few remaining primary forests, thereby safe guarding communities that depend on them and protecting the forests carbon carrying capacity.

(The writer is a fellow with the UNFCCC and teaches a module on Climate Change in Bangalore, India)

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