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Forests Could Cool or Cook The Planet

By Stephen Leahy

10 October, 2007
Inter Press Service

BROOKLIN, Canada, Dec 7 (IPS) - A two-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures could flip the Amazon forest from being the Earth's vital air conditioner to a flamethrower that cooks the planet, warns a new report released at the climate talks in Bali, Indonesia Friday.

And we're already past 0.6 degrees C., climate experts say.

Paradoxically, a two-degree C. rise in global temperatures cannot be prevented without a largely intact Amazon rainforest, says Dan Nepstad, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Centre in the U.S. state of Massachusetts and author of the report "The Amazon's Vicious Cycles: Drought and Fire in the Greenhouse", issued by WWF, the global conservation organisation.

"The importance of the Amazon forest for the globe's climate cannot be underplayed," said Nepstad at a press conference from Nusa Dua on the island of Bali, the site of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference running until Dec. 14.

The trees of the Amazon contain at least 100 billion tonnes of carbon -- 15 years worth of global emissions from all sources, he said. "It's not only essential for cooling the world's temperature but also such a large source of freshwater that it may be enough to influence some of the great ocean currents."

It is in everyone's interest to keep the Amazon intact, but deforestation continues apace, driven by expanding cattle ranching, soy farming, conversion into sugar cane for biofuel and logging.

This assault is drying out the forest, making it more vulnerable to burning. Rising global temperatures are also increasing evaporation rates, drying the forest further.

"There's a perfect storm building for massive forest loss in the Amazon," Nepstad warned.

But the vicious cycle that's drying out the forest can be broken, said Hans Verolme, director of WWF's Global Climate Change Programme.

One of the essential steps is for industrialised countries to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases by 33 percent from 1990 levels over the next 12 years, Verolme said from Nusa Dua.

Forests can also be restored and protected from fire and become a source of jobs and income for local people, said Nepstad.

While nearly everyone wants to protect forests, 13 million hectares are lost every year, resulting in at least 25 percent of global carbon emissions. Chopping down forests is like throwing bilge pumps overboard when a ship has sprung a leak.

"Forests are the biggest issue here in Bali," said Claude Gascon, a vice president of Conservation International.

"We're hoping there will be official recognition of the value of standing forests as part of the solution to climate change," Gascon told IPS from Nusa Dua.

The UNFCCC Bali conference, sometimes called Kyoto II or Kyoto Plus, is the beginning of a two-year negotiating process that will lead to a new pact to deepen curbs on greenhouse gases beyond 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol's current pledges expire. Kyoto did not include existing forests, in part because of objections by international environmental groups and Brazil.

This time around, most expect provisions for "avoided deforestation credits" to be included in any new agreement.

Some environmental groups continue to bitterly oppose rich countries and companies buying avoided deforestation credits from tropical countries in exchange for protecting forests to offset their carbon emissions. The main objection is the obvious inequity of allowing rich countries, which are by far the most responsible for climate change, to continue polluting simply because they have enough money to pay for the privilege.

"Governments are here to stop climate change, not promote carbon commercialisation. They should keep forests out of carbon markets, [and] stop subsidising agrofuels," said Miguel Lovera, chair of the Global Forest Coalition.

The coalition advocates bans on deforestation and strict regulations on emissions at source, more sustainable wind and solar energy projects and ramping up investment in efficient and affordable public transport systems.

So far, Brazil has taken a similar view. A Brazilian delegate told the Bali conference that her government did not believe in market-based mechanisms to limit deforestation unless rich nations agreed to make major emissions cuts at home.

Gascon disagreed. "The situation [climate change] is so serious we need to use everything," he said. And he sees carbon credits as a good way of providing funding to protect and hopefully plant more forests.

Whatever mechanism is created will have to be implemented correctly, take the needs of indigenous and local people into account, and preserve and enhance biodiversity. These important details can be worked out, but at the moment countries are positioning themselves for their own self-interest, he said.

Gascon also worried about the heavy presence of officials at the Bali meeting from the energy, trade and foreign policy departments of various governments.

"It's more like a WTO [World Trade Organisation] meeting," he said, adding that, "Neither markets, trade nor corporations are going to solve the problem of climate change -- but they could help."

© 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.

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