By James Sutton & Rosana Della Méa for the bloomtrigger project
Arriving in Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20, the biggest meeting to take place in 20 years to discuss the environmental, social and economic future of our planet, it is difficult to mistake that you have landed in the right place. Apart from the name of the city being the most obvious giveaway, the place is teeming with foreign delegates, world leaders and countless representatives from NGOs, corporations and concerned citizens from 176 different nations. Looking along the white sand beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema at any time day or night, business as usual is all around, scores of locals playing endless games of football, tourists taking in the sun and caipirinhas, but also the presence of Rio+20 is unmistakably everywhere you look. Extra soldiers line the streets with intimidatingly large guns to ensure the security for this summit. A huge metal scaffolding structure has been constructed over looking the sea displaying giant LED boards that flash Rio+20 messages as a constant reminder of what is happening and every 500 meters another enterprising local has sculpted a mini Rio+20 utopia out of the sand, complete with a tiny version of Christ the Redeemer (Rio’s iconic statue of Christ) to cash in on visitors taking photographs of their creative work.
This United Nations conference wraps up today with the hope of providing new agreements on all aspects of sustainable development, from issues such as food and energy security, the human rights of local and indigenous peoples, resource depletion to oceans and water conservation. While representing Bloomtrigger our main focus was to find out where the world stands today on forests and to see what the picture is looking like for this vital global resource in the coming years and decades. As places go for discussing the issue of global deforestation there are few city more impacting than Rio, the beauty of this vibrant city is in every nook and side street, with nowhere more striking than with the contrast found when the towering forest covered mountains are confronted by the gradual invasion of the sprawling favelas (Brazilian slums). This mixture of uncontrolled population growth, ever increasing competition for land and the disparity between the rich and the poor can be seen to define both the great challenges facing the people of this city and equally the difficulties faced by the global community in managing our forests in the wider world.
In many respects there is much to be positive about. Looking at the host country as an example, many Brazilians are keen to point out the successes of the past 20 years. In this BRIC country that has seen continued economic growth, with cities like Manaus boasting growth on level with China at around 9%, while also reporting a significant decrease in deforestation over the last 5 years. These reduced rates of deforestation are mainly due to the work of Marina Silva, the former Minister of Environment for Brazil; though it is not looking hopeful for these trends to continue with the new laws being pushed by the current government of Dilma Rousseff. There is a grave concern amongst Brazilians and the international community over the new changes to the Forest Code in Brazil, which will encourage deforestation, resulting in a huge step backwards. Speaking to Brazilians there is a great frustration that this is happening against the wishes of the people and just goes to show the power and influence of a handful of special interest groups, namely big agro-business and the latifundiários (Brazilian land barons who still own vast tracts of land throughout Brazil).
Source: Mongabay, 2012
Renewed attention is being given to forestry carbon, with REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) being the top of the forestry agenda. This financial mechanism designed to provide a way to pay for the environmental services that forests provide is considered the best opportunity we have to protect forests around the world. After 7 years of stalling due to the political and practical challenges posed by REDD+, progresses are now being made on the ground. Pilot projects are proving that issues such as additionality, baselines and benefit sharing can be overcome. In recent years some projects have been certified by the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) and The Climate, Community & Biodiversity Standard (CCB) – (if you are not an expert on the forestry carbon jargon, basically forestry carbon projects need to be accredited by international standards like these for investors to have confidence that the carbon credits from these projects are of a high quality). Examples of these can be seen in the Amazon with the pioneering Juma project implemented by Fundação Amazonas Sustentável (FAS) and the Suruí project from Metareilá Association, which is also responsible for the first project to issue REDD+ credits under the VCS on the African continent in the Kenya’s Kasigau Corridor developed by Wildlife Works. The support for REDD+ was visible everywhere, quite literally in the case of a new campaign launched during Rio+20 called Code REDD by a group of leading institutions and corporations. Their objective is to create a momentum in the private sector to get behind REDD+ and start buying forestry carbon credits. They even took their message to the streets of Rio with a launch event in party district of Lapa, attracting large crowds with their video projections and DJs playing late into the night.
However despite all the progress being made by a relatively small number of individuals and organisations, it is sobering to hear the reports by scientists at the CIFOR 8th Roundtable event on forests. They remind us that approximately 12 million hectares of forest are being lost globally every year according to figures by the FAO. They are raising the alarm about the looming tipping points of the forests, the point of no return, when to much forest has been destroyed, triggering the collapse of the entire ecosystem. The main tipping points to watch are atmospheric temperature rises, where a global increase of 3.5% would have devastating consequence on the forest ecosystems and the other tipping point highlighted is when we loose more than 40% of the total forest area. We know that at present over 20% of the Amazon is gone, so further deforestation is a huge gamble with potentially fatal consequences.
The scientists are also indicating that the relationship between forests and water will play an increasingly important role for protecting forests in the coming years and that we should not only think about the relationship between forests and carbon. The global water cycle mapped by satellite imagery, clearly shows how water transpiration being generated by tropical forests is having a direct effect on rainfall and therefore agriculture in neighboring continents. Habitat lost in the Amazon directly effects the livelihoods of farmers and the food security around the world, not only the local inhabitants. Issues surrounding food security are typically subjects that people from all walks of life quickly get hot under the collar about and with water resources becoming ever scarcer, this will likely lead to increasing interest in forest protection on the individual and national level.
Satelite imagery showing global rainfall in relation to tropical forests. Source: The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
It is clear that the story of our forests is at the forefront in determining the economic, social and environmental prosperity of our future and everything is still to be won or lost in the coming decades. The urgency for funding for pioneering projects to conserve forests is great and the time to engage people to take action towards zero deforestation is now. So it goes without saying that we will continue to develop the bloomtrigger project to enable a simple, affordable and creative way for people to protect forests. In 2012 we are standing at a cross road and in the next 10 years we will undoubtedly witness great changes happen. Lets try to make the story for Rio+30 the world we want!
To become a part of the bloomtrigger project and protect you own part of the Amazon rainforest in a creative way click here!
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Core Guidance for Project Proponents
By Michael Richards, Steven Panfil – Forest Trends, Conservation International
Are land-based carbon projects good for local people, biodiversity, and ecosystem services? The Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA), Forest Trends, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and the Rainforest Alliance formed an alliance with the aim of producing a user-friendly Manual on how to conduct cost-effective and credible social and biodiversity impact assessment. The concepts described in this Manual will be relevant to a wide range of site-level land-based carbon activities, whether designed for compliance or voluntary markets (we believe that sub-national activities will continue to have an important role in a future REDD + architecture).
Programme announcement by VCS
An important new methodology to quantify the greenhouse gas benefits of activities that reduce unplanned deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) has been approved for use under the VCS Program.
Developed by Brazil’s Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS) and the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund, the new methodology can be used to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions from areas where unplanned deforestation is taking place and to quantify the emission reductions that occur when deforestation is curbed.
Importantly, the new methodology provides a way to address simultaneously both frontier and mosaic deforestation, or any combination of the two. Frontier deforestation is forest destruction that occurs along a discernible frontier, such as a new road cut into a forest. Mosaic deforestation, in contrast, occurs in patches across a forested area. However, in many areas deforestation can exhibit both frontier and mosaic patterns of development.
The new REDD methodology provides a comprehensive set of tools for analyzing both frontier and mosaic deforestation patterns to establish a robust baseline deforestation rate, monitor emission reductions and assess leakage. Approval means projects may use the methodology to quantify emission reductions and removals and issue verified GHG credits, known as Verified Carbon Units, or VCUs.
“This methodology provides a comprehensive and sophisticated new approach for estimating emissions across areas where there are multiple drivers of deforestation,” said VCS CEO David Antonioli. “We are seeing that REDD methodologies can channel carbon revenue to forested areas, tipping the balance so that economic incentives favor conservation instead of forest destruction.”
The approach, called VM0015 Methodology for Avoided Unplanned Deforestation, was assessed by two independent validation bodies under the VCS Methodology Approval Process. The first independent validation body was Bureau Veritas Certification and the second was Rainforest Alliance, contracted directly by the VCS Association. All assessment reports and other documents are available on the VCS website.
Global deforestation is a vast and complex issue. The bloomtrigger project is one small, yet essential part of the solution.
By James Sutton, 7 June 2011
The bloomtrigger project aims to raise £100M to protect 1 million hectares of the most biodiverse rainforest on the planet. This project is beginning with a ‘pilot’ phase in 5 primary schools, aiming to raise £5,000 which will help to protect 50 hectares of rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon.
This pilot project is pioneering a new, creative model of online fundraising to help tackle the issue of global deforestation and climate change, while helping to support indigenous communities on the ground by promoting sustainable development and environmental awareness.
The funds raised from bloomtrigger’s pilot project will be supporting a local forestry community in the Manu region of Peru through the CREES Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation working in the region since 2003. The conservation strategy being implemented is itself a new agroforestry model being pioneered with support of Environmental Change Institute (ECI) of Oxford University. It has long been recognized that local people are the true guardians of the forest and empowering them to manage their forests sustainably is the key to long-term conservation.
The founder of bloomtrigger, James Sutton explains “the purpose of this pilot project is to demonstrate how bloomtrigger.com can enable individuals, businesses and primary school children to work together on a local community level to help influence what I believe is the biggest threat facing the youngest generation in the world today. Once the bloomtrigger’s pilot has proven successful, then we can begin to scale up our model to enable more people from across the world to help protect rainforest in this simple, affordable and creative way”.
Ultimately bloomtrigger’s aim is to bring together people to play their small part in a global project to help protect 1 million hectares of rainforest, establishing itself as a blueprint for future generations to replicate. Please take a moment to sign up and become a part of ‘the bloomtrigger Generation’ from the very beginning. Get involved!
George Monbiot, The Guardian, 5 May 2011
…..The enmity arises when people go into denial. Denial is everywhere. Those opposing windfarms find it convenient to deny that climate change is happening, or that turbines produce much electricity. Those promoting windfarms downplay the landscape impacts. Nuclear enthusiasts ignore the impacts of uranium mining. Opponents of nuclear power dismiss the solid science on the impacts of radiation and embrace wildly-inflated junk numbers instead. Primitivists decry all manufacturing industry, but fail to explain how their medicines and spectacles, scythes and billhooks will be produced. Localists rely on technologies – such as microwind and high-latitude solar power – that cannot deliver. Technocratic greens refuse to see that if economic growth is not addressed, a series of escalating catastrophes is inevitable. Romantic greens insist that the problem can be solved without even engaging in these dilemmas, yet fail to explain how else it can be done…..
Belo Monte hydroelectric dam construction work begins
By Tom Phillips / THE GUARDIAN, Rio de Janeiro, Thursday 10 March 2011
With most Brazilian eyes firmly fixed on the country’s annual carnival, construction work officially started this week on the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.
In a blog post, the company leading the dam project, Norte Energia, announced that infrastructure work on roads that will provide access to the region started on Monday morning. A photograph showed lorries and a yellow road-roller moving on to the site.
The £7bn Belo Monte dam on the Amazon’s Xingu river is scheduled to start producing energy on 31 December 2014 and would be the second largest of its kind in Brazil and reputedly the world’s third largest.
The Brazilian government says the dam is urgently needed if the country is to keep pace with soaring domestic energy demand resulting from a booming economy that grew 7.5% last year.
But indigenous and environmental groups claim Belo Monte will displace tens of thousands of river-dwellers and bring violence and social chaos to the Amazon state of Para.
Brazil court reverses Amazon Monte Belo dam suspension
By BBC, 3 March 2011
A court in Brazil has approved a controversial hydro-electric project in the Amazon rainforest, overturning an earlier ruling.
Last week a judge blocked construction of the Belo Monte dam, saying it did not meet environmental standards.
But a higher court on Thursday said there was no need for all conditions to be met in order for work to begin.
Critics say the project threatens wildlife and will make thousands of people homeless.
The Monte Belo dam is a cornerstone of President Dilma Rousseff’s plan to upgrade Brazil’s energy infrastructure.
Electricity in Brazil – Don’t mention the B-word
Hungry for power
By THE ECONOMIST, 10 February 2011 | SÃO PAULO
IT WAS not a “blackout”, said Edison Lobão, merely a “temporary interruption of the electricity supply”. Brazil’s energy minister was speaking on February 4th after nearly 50m people across eight states in the country’s north-east had spent most of the night without power. Engineers are still investigating, but their preliminary conclusion is that a component in a substation failed just after midnight. That caused safety systems to malfunction, and transmission lines and then a power station to shut down.
Mr Lobão is trying to reserve the b-word for something more serious, which his government is determined to avoid: a big and sustained mismatch between electricity supply and demand. That last happened in 2001-02, after decades of growing energy use and low investment were followed by drought (70% of Brazil’s power comes from hydroelectric dams.) Back then, only rationing kept the lights on, and the after-effects dampened demand for some years.
Dam-Affected People Deliver Half a Million Signatures Calling on Brazil’s President Dilma to Stop the Belo Monte Dam
By AMAZON WATCH, Brasila, February 2011
Over half a million people, most of them Brazilians, are calling on newly-elected President Dilma to halt plans to construct the Belo Monte Dam. Outside the Brazilian Congress and Presidential Palace this morning, several hundred people gathered in protest including indigenous chiefs in full tribal regalia and community leaders from the Xingu River Basin, and delivered the petition signatures to the Dilma Government.
A delegation of leaders went inside the Presidential Palace around noon to present the petition, among them were Kayapó chiefs Raoni Metuktire and Megaron Txucarramãe from Mato Grosso state; Chief Ozimar Juruna from Paquicamba village in Altamira; Josinei Arara, leader of the Arara village in Altamira; Sheyla Juruna, a leader of the Juruna people; and Antonia Melo, coordinator of the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre.
“This is a life and death struggle,” said Sheyla Juruna, one of the delegates who met with the Office of the President. “By pushing forward with this dam, the Dilma government is trampling on our rights. This is not just about defending the Xingu River, it’s about the health of the Amazon rainforest and our planet.”
A Message from Pandora
AMAZON WATCH, 27 August 2010
“A Message from Pandora” is a special feature produced by James Cameron about the battle to stop the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu, one of the great tributaries of the Amazon River.
Monarch butterflies in Mexico – The cautious comeback of an intrepid insect
Feb 24th 2011 by Piedra Herrada, The Economist
LIKE many a sun-seeking tourist, the monarch butterfly prefers to spend winter in the warmth of Mexico. Before the first frosts, it leaves its breeding grounds in Canada and the United States and flies up to 5,000km (3,000 miles) to a patch of forest west of Mexico City. Weighing down tree branches in giant clusters by night, the monarchs flutter through the forest in their millions in the day, turning the sky amber.
This natural wonder faces two threats. In the butterflies’ northern feeding and breeding sites, unpredictable weather is hindering reproduction. A cold summer in Canada and the United States in 2009 meant that the following winter saw fewer monarchs in Mexico than at any time since records began in 1994. Deforestation in the butterflies’ Mexican base, mainly through illegal logging, has made their winter holidaying harder still.
Yet the insect battles on. This winter the butterflies colonised four hectares (ten acres) of Mexican forest, more than double the amount last year. This is still on the low side (1997, the busiest year on record, saw 18 hectares occupied), but Omar Vidal, head of the Mexican office of WWF, an environmental advocacy group, says the news is encouraging.
Illegal logging has almost been eradicated, thanks to the fostering of alternative jobs such as mushroom-growing and tourism, which attracts some 115,000 visitors per year. “People in this region are hard-working…they only need an honourable source of work to bring bread back home,” says Rosendo Caro, director of the butterfly reserve, now a UNESCO world heritage site. Last year less than two hectares of forest were lost to illicit felling, down from 461 in 2006.
Jobs in tourism have been put at risk by a surge in drug-related violence in the state of Michoacán, which caused the number of visitors to fall by almost half this winter. As well as winning back those butterfly-spotters, Mr Caro wants to attract more visitors in the summer, when the monarchs are away and local restaurants and petrol stations see little custom. For once, a stampede of tourists may be just what is needed to preserve a natural marvel.
An introduction to ‘the bloomtrigger pilot project’ – a simple, affordable and creative way for people to protect rainforest!
bloomtrigger working in collaboration with 5 primary schools will raise £5,000 to protect 50 hectares of rainforest in Peru.
Visit bloomtrigger.com and get in touch if you are interested in becoming a part of the bloomtrigger pilot project!
The 38 Degrees campaign has been a success, not just for forests but because it proves that people power works.
More than 500,000 of us are celebrating our part in the biggest campaign win since this government came to power last May. David Cameron seems to have completely dropped his plan to sell off the UK’s forests. For every single one of us who got involved with this campaign – and there’s a lot of us, as over half a million signed the 38 Degrees petition alone – this is a huge victory, not just because we’ve protected our forests but because it proves something even more exciting: people power works.
• David Babbs is executive director at 38 Degrees
I just got back from Peru where I spent a week at the Manu Learning Centre (MLC) with the CREES Foundation working with the local community involved in an agroforestry/carbon project in the Manu region.
CREES Foundation has been working in Peru since 2003 bringing awareness, promoting education, research and sustainable development within the local people. MLC is situated along the river Madre de Dios in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest and it hosts an array of diverse research projects thanks to its own unique diversity and history within the region.
Based within a private reserve the centre has access to 7 different forest types, mammal and avian clay licks, canopy trees and old agricultural plots. The MLC works as an excellent base to set up analysis laboratories, monitoring programmes, and transect studies, as well as mammal camera trapping, mist netting and aquatic surveys.
UN-REDD Programme applauds the COP16 agreement on REDD+ reached in Cancun. Heads of the three UN agencies involved in the UN-REDD Programme (FAO, UNDP and UNEP) call the REDD+ agreement a positive step forward in the conservation and sustainable management of the world’s forests.
The “REDD+ at project scale: Evaluation and Development Guide” aims at supporting project promoters in developing REDD+ projects, and investors or funding agencies in their assessments of these projects. It offers insights into existing tools and key questions. On the basis of initial feedbacks from existing REDD+ projects and other more long-standing projects for natural resources management, the guide also deals with crucial aspects particularly the definition of project activities, legal and organisational issues and economic and financial assessments.
The following are the different parts of the guide-book:
* What is meant by REDD+ at project scale?
* Determining the profile and strategy of a REDD+ project
* Ownership of REDD+ carbon credits and how this can affect the project’s organizational structure
* Specific methodologies for REDD+ projects
* Assessment and certification of the social and environmental impacts of REDD+ projects
* Financial and economic assessment of REDD+ projects
by Maryanne Grieg-Gran, IIED Briefing Paper, Nov 2010
When it comes to deforestation, the task of reconciling climate and development goals poses a daunting challenge. Forest clearing is both the source of significant greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change and, for some farmers, the most practical means for expanding agricultural production to meet rising food demands. ‘REDD’ or ‘REDD+’ mechanisms for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, by providing developing countries with incentives to conserve their forests, are rapidly gaining credence as effective tools for mitigating climate change. But if they are to work, they must pay more attention to the role of agriculture in deforestation and the implications for food security of reducing deforestation. Improving agricultural productivity will be key. But productivity gains must not undermine REDD+ efforts. This means nurturing low-emission alternatives to forest clearing. It means supporting poor farmers to adapt to climate change. Above all, it means climate, forest and agriculture policy communities must work together.
By Richard Anderson Business reporter, BBC News – 24 October 2010 Last updated at 19:12
Slowing down the destruction of the Earth’s natural resources is essential if the global economy, and the businesses that drive it, are to prosper long term.
The current rate of destruction is estimated to cost the world trillions of dollars every year, and the damage will only get get worse unless wide-ranging measures are taken to stop it.
The reason is simple – population growth is the main driver behind those factors that are causing biodiversity loss.
There are currently about 6.7 billion people living on Earth, and this number is projected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050 – that’s roughly the population of the UK being added to the planet every year. This means we’ll need 70% more food, according to the United Nations (UN), just one of the many additional pressures on Earth’s finite resources. If left unchecked, these pressures will lead to the ever-faster destruction of nature, which could cost the world $28.6tn (£18.2tn), or 18% of global economic output, by 2050, according to the UN-backed Principles of Responsible Investment and corporate environmental research group Trucost. That’s about twice the current output of the US, the world’s biggest economy.
So what can be done?
A vital step has already been taken – for the first time in history, we now have at least a rough idea of the economic cost of depleting the earth’s natural resources.
The economic value of mangroves is often greater than the shrimp farms that replace them
This not only means that governments, businesses and consumers can understand the gravity of the problem, but it also means the value of nature can be factored into business decisions. As Will Evison, environmental economist at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), says: “No-one is saying we should just stop converting pristine land, just that the value of the environment is recognised”. For example, a study on the conversion of mangroves to commercial shrimp farms in southern Thailand estimated the net economic returns at $1,122 per hectare a year. The conclusion, at least for the shrimp farmer, is clear – there is an economic benefit of converting the mangroves. But once the wider costs of the conversion – what economists call externalities – are taken into account, a very different conclusion is reached.
The economic benefits from the mangroves of collecting wood, providing nurseries for offshore fisheries and protection against storms total $10,821 a hectare, far outweighing the benefits of converting them into a shrimp farm.
There are a number of initiatives, some already introduced and some in the pipeline, that are specifically designed to ensure that the economic value of nature is recognised. One example is reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, or REDD, under which forest owners are paid not to cut down trees. A number of governments across the world have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to these projects. Another is habitat banking, the market for which currently stands at around $3bn in the US, where companies that degrade natural areas are forced to restore nature elsewhere. Trade in forest conservation obligations in Brazil and ground-water salinity credits in Australia have also proved successful. Alongside these schemes and those like them, there are various compensation arrangements that make those causing environmental damage pay for it, just like carbon credits that currently exist. Exemptions from these various taxes, charges and fees, as well as subsidies, are also used to encourage environmentally responsible behaviour. There is also growing pressure for companies to begin incorporating the costs of the damage that they do to the Earth’s natural resources into their profit and loss accounts.
Governments have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to preserving rainforests
Only by incorporating these costs into their accounts, many argue, will companies be forced to reduce their impact on the natural world. “Directors’ bonuses don’t have to be included [in company accounts] from a pure profit and loss point of view, but they are. Environmental externalities should be the same,” says Pavan Sukhdev, a career banker and team leader of the United Nations’ The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) study. “This is not a straightforward process and needs standard methodologies accepted by everyone, but it could be achieved within 10 years.” The next step would be to incorporate environmental assets into national accounts.
But many companies already do acknowledge the costs of biodiversity loss. A survey conducted by PwC earlier this year found that 27% of chief executives were either “extremely” or “somewhat” concerned about biodiversity loss, but there was a large disparity between those operating in developed economies and those in emerging markets.
Indeed many multinational companies have made significant investments in protecting the natural resources upon which their success depends. These include investments to mitigate the impact of tighter regulation, such as shipping giant Swire’s decision to buy up swathes of rainforest to offset the possible introduction of pollution taxes in the shipping industry. Indeed those companies that are well prepared for more stringent regulation, and have made the necessary investment in protecting the natural assets that serve them, will gain an important competitive advantage. But it’s not just a question of risk mitigation – there are also opportunities for companies that act in an environmentally responsible manner.
Brewing giant SABMiller has made considerable investments in reforestation in Columbia and South Africa, as well as setting stringent targets for reducing water consumption – commitments, it says, that helped the company secure licences to brew in Australia, “because the authorities trust that we will be water efficient”, says Andy Wales, the brewer’s global head of sustainable development. Contrast this with mining group Vedanta, which has been denied permission both to expand its aluminium operations and to mine bauxite in India after campaigners claimed the company had ignored the needs of indigenous peoples.
Companies also recognise that they need to react to increasing customer awareness of environmental issues. For example, another survey conducted by PwC in May found that more than half of UK consumers were willing to pay between 10% and 25% more for goods up to £100 to account for their impact on the natural world.
More companies are investing in sustainable practices to meet consumer demand
Such changing consumer attitudes mean that more and more companies are investing in reducing their impact on nature. For example, the world’s biggest retailer Walmart has introduced sustainability criteria as part of its official product sourcing process. Coffee giant Starbucks has also invested millions of dollars in protecting natural resources because “we know maintaining biodiversity makes a difference to our coffee drinkers” according to Tim McCoy, the company’s head of communications. Natura, the Brazilian cosmetics group with a turnover of $2.4bn, has committed to sourcing products sustainably from natural sources in order to appeal to consumers, while French energy group GDF Suez has invested in conserving biodiversity on its landfill sites purely as part of its “reputational risk management”. Google Maps has even launched a service that allows users to track changes in forest cover across the world.
Not everything some companies say about their environmental commitments can be believed, but the fact that they are saying it at all is what’s important, says Mr Sukhdev. “Once you get away from denial, you pass through a phase of understanding and then one of empty rhetoric before you arrive at action. The stage of empty rhetoric is part of the process.” And those companies that do take action will win out in the long run. The costs of failing to protect the Earth’s natural resources and the services they provide, and the price of failing to grasp the opportunities that investing in nature present, are simply too great for those that do not.
This is the third in a series of three articles on the economic cost of human activity on the natural world.
The first looked at the full impact of the degradation of the natural world on the global economy – both on business and consumers.
A special report on forests – Purveyors of water, consumers of carbon, treasure-houses of species, the world’s forests are ecological miracles. They must not be allowed to vanish, says James Astill – The Economist – Sep 23rd 2010
DAYBREAK is a heavenly time to look on the Amazonian canopy. From a Brazilian research tower high above it, a fuzzy grey sylvan view emerges from the thinning gloom, vastly undulating, more granular than a cloud. It is mind-bendingly beautiful. Chirruping and squawking, a few early risers—collared puffbirds, chestnut-rumped woodcreepers and the tautologous curve-billed scythebill—open up for the planet’s biggest avian choir.
In a slick of molten gold, dawn breaks and the trees awaken. In every leaf, chlorophyll molecules are seizing the day for photosynthesis. Using sunlight to ship electrons, they split water molecules and combine the resulting hydrogen with carbon dioxide extracted from the air. This produces carbohydrates that the trees turn into sugars, to be burnt off in respiration or, by another chemical process, turned into new plant-matter. The main waste product, oxygen, they emit through their stomata in a watery belch. Hence the rainforest’s high level of humidity, visible from the observation tower in diaphanous cloudlets drifting over the canopy.
That plants emit oxygen has long been known—since 1774, in fact, when Joseph Priestley, a British chemist, found a mouse not too “inconvenienced” by being trapped inside a bell-jar with a mint plant. Yet the importance of plants’ ability to store carbon in making the planet habitable is still not widely appreciated. On two previous occasions when the atmosphere contained very high levels of carbon dioxide, the early Carboniferous and Cretaceous periods, beginning about 350m and 150m years ago respectively, they were reduced by the expansion of carbon-sequestering plants. Industrial burning of the fossil fuels laid down in the Carboniferous period, in the form of decaying plant-matter, is the main reason why there is now more carbon in the atmosphere than there has been for 4m years.
This is the latest reason—and it is a big one—why destroying forests is a bad idea. Roughly half the dry weight of a tree is made up of stored carbon, most of which is released when the tree rots or is burned. For at least the past 10,000 years man has been contributing to this process by hacking and burning forests to make way for agriculture. About half the Earth’s original forest area has been cleared. Until the 1960s, by one estimate, changes in land use, which mostly means deforestation, accounted for most historic man-made emissions. And its contribution to emissions is still large: say 15-17% of the total, more than the share of all the world’s ships, cars, trains and planes.
But this underestimates the damage done by the clearance. It also discounts a geological-time-honoured way to sequester carbon. That growing forests, natural or planted, do this is obvious. But there is increasing evidence to suggest that primary, or old-growth, forests are seizing the opportunity of a carbon-heavy atmosphere to suck up more carbon than they did previously, a process known as “carbon fertilisation”. By one estimate the Amazon rainforest is sequestering an additional 1.3 gigatonnes a year, roughly matching the recent annual emissions produced by clearing it. Across the world, forests and the soil beneath them absorb about a quarter of all carbon emissions.
This is an indispensable contribution to life as we know it, and forests offer many others, too. They house more than half the world’s species of animals, birds and insects. In the Amazon rainforest this biodiversity is staggering: even its small gullies and runnels often have unique sub-species of monkeys, birds, creatures of all kinds. Forests are also the source of most staple foods and many modern medicines. They provide livelihoods, wholly or partly, for about 400m of the world’s poorest people. They have always touched the imaginations of more privileged ones: “A culture is no better than its woods,” wrote W.H. Auden. Indeed, the more that people learn about forests, the more perilous their mismanagement seems.
That forests regulate water run-off, mitigating risks of flooding and drought, has been recognised since ancient times. The ancients also understood that trees can increase rainfall and deforestation can reduce it. Cutting down trees leads to a reduction in evapotranspiration, which results in less downwind precipitation. In the case of the Amazon rainforest this has huge implications for the agriculture of the whole of the Americas. That of southern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay, in particular, depends for rainfall on the moist Atlantic trade winds, which cross the Amazon basin and then are deflected southwards by the Andes. There are also indications that the American Midwest is watered from the same source, by the moisture deflected northwards. The forest, by recycling the water that falls on it through evapotranspiration, plays an important part in this system.
Between a quarter and half of the water molecules that fall in the western Amazon have previously fallen on the rainforest. In its absence, it would be reasonable to expect a corresponding decrease in regional precipitation, which would be calamitous, but the actual effect could be much worse. Two Russian physicists, Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, claim that forests, not temperature, are the main drivers of winds. They base this on the previously unconsidered drop in pressure that occurs when water passes from gas to liquid state in condensation. So ecosystems that maintain a moist atmosphere—as rainforest does—draw in air and moisture from elsewhere. This could explain the curious fact that precipitation in the western Amazon is higher than it is upwind, despite leakage in run-off at every revolution of the local water cycle.
The theory caused a stir in Western academia last year when it was put forward in the journal Bioscience and is considered far-fetched by many. But it should reinforce the point that, on hydrological grounds alone, conserving forest is often essential.
And still they are being chopped down. According to the main compiler of forest data, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, about 4 billion hectares (10 billion acres) of forest remain, covering 31% of the Earth’s land surface. Only a third is primary. Much of the rest is seriously degraded: the FAO’s definition of a forest takes in areas with as little as 10% tree cover.
Almost half of the forest that remains is in the tropics, mostly as rainforest which, by almost any measure, is most precious of all. Nearly a third of that rainforest is in Brazil, which has two–thirds of the Amazon basin; and a fifth is in Congo and Indonesia. The second-biggest forest area, about a third of the total, is in the boreal, or taiga, biome: a belt of spruce, birch, fir and aspen that encircles the far northern hemisphere, mostly in Russia, Scandinavia, Finland, Canada and a small part of America. Just 11% of forest is in the temperate zone, dominated by America, which cleared almost half its massive forests in the 19th century, and Europe and China, which ate into theirs much earlier. Europe razed almost half its temperate oak-, beech- and birch-woods in the Middle Ages, an onslaught only briefly reversed by an outbreak of bubonic plague in the 14th century. Now temperate forests are creeping back. Over 7m hectares a year are currently being planted or allowed to regrow, according to the FAO, mostly in China and America.
The current onslaught is mainly in the tropics. In the past six decades the rainforest has been reduced by over 60% and two-thirds of what remains is fragmented, which makes it even more liable to be cleared. And despite many campaigns by NGOs, vigils and rock concerts for the rainforest and efforts to buy it, lease it, log it and not log it, the destruction proceeds at a furious clip. In the past decade, the FAO records, around 13m hectares of the world’s forests, an area the size of England, have been lost each year. Most of this was tropical forest, razed for agriculture. But Russia, which has more forest than any other country, also lost a lot, which the FAO’s figures do not capture because its clearance did not involve a permanent change in land use. Between 2000 and 2005 some 144,000 sq km (55,500 square miles) of Russian forest—14% of the total—was incinerated or felled, much of it illegally.
This represents progress, of a sort. In the 1990s, when the candle-holding for the rainforest was at its height, over 16m hectares a year was lost. Most of the slowdown is because of reduced rates of clearance in the world’s biggest deforesters, Brazil and Indonesia, and to some degree this reflects their former gluttony: both have masses of cleared land to spare. But in both countries efforts to reduce the destruction have also helped, especially in Brazil, which has a fast-growing agricultural sector and is increasingly worried about deforestation. Over the past decade it has given protected status to 500,000 sq km of the Amazon rainforest. According to a recent report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a British think-tank, illegal logging has been greatly reduced in Brazil, Indonesia and Cameroon.
A few smaller rainforest countries are also showing more regard for their trees. Costa Rica, which in the late 1980s lost around 4% of its forest each year, has reduced its deforestation almost to zero. Gabon and Guyana, almost three-quarters of which are covered by trees, say that, with foreign help, they would be happy to keep it that way. Western consumers, increasingly sensitive to the notion of sustainability, have a small hand in these improvements. Alarmed by their bad press, Canadian timber companies announced in May this year that they would work with greens to improve the management of 72m hectares of boreal forest.
Yet such progress tends to be exaggerated, and even if it were real it would be insufficient because of two huge threats to the forest. The first is climate change, which is expected to redraw the map of forest ecosystems. The boreal forest will creep northwards, for example, as the permafrost thaws and carbon fertilisation increases. By one estimate, Finland’s forests could grow 44% faster as a result. But that is nothing to celebrate, because melting permafrost will release billions of tonnes of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas. It will also be offset by an increase in forest dieback elsewhere, caused by rising aridity, drought, pests and fires—all symptoms of global warming. Deforestation, which causes local warming, exacerbates this. All this could make much of the current forest area inhospitable to trees.
Such damage is already more common than most climate models had predicted, with the boreal belt especially hard hit. Between 2000 and 2005 it lost 351,000 sq km of forest, mostly to fire and pests. Again, this loss does not show up in the FAO’s figures, and the resulting emissions are considered to be natural, not man-made. But the distinction is getting blurred. Setting aside its reforestation efforts, Canada, the world’s third-most-forested country, lost 5.2% of its tree cover in that five-year period. This was partly because of a plague of bark-beetles in its temperate and boreal zones, a record number of which have been surviving the recent mild winters. By 2009 they had devastated over 16m hectares of Canadian pine forest.
The outlook for the Amazon is also grave. Recent modelling suggests that the mutually reinforcing effects of increasing temperatures and aridity, forest fires and deforestation could bring the rainforest far closer than previously thought to “tipping points” at which it becomes ecologically unviable. So far 18% of the rainforest has been cleared. The loss of another 2%, according to a World Bank study last year, could start to trigger dieback in the forest’s relatively dry southern and south-eastern parts. A global temperature increase of 3.5%, comfortably within the current range of estimates for the end of this century, would put paid to half the rainforest. This would release much of the 50 gigatonnes of carbon it is estimated to contain—equivalent to ten years of global emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Too many hungry mouths
The second great threat is human. The Earth’s population is expected to increase by half over the next four decades, to around 9 billion, and most of the additional 3 billion-odd hungry mouths will be in developing countries, especially tropical ones. The population of Congo, now 70m, will double in that time. Demand for food in these countries will also double, which, at their current low levels of agricultural productivity, will drive up demand for forest land.
As in most central African countries, Congo’s deforestation is currently minor, caused largely by small-scale shifting cultivation and over-harvesting of wood for fuel. At present the country has little commercial agriculture or logging because of the state of its infrastructure, ruined by war and misrule. Indeed, the decay of Congo’s Belgian-built roads, which in 1960 ran to over 100,000km, must rank as one of the greatest boons to forests since the Black Death. In the thick forest-savannah mosaic of northern Congo, many days’ walk from any tarmac, your correspondent unearthed a milestone, half-buried in the leaf-litter, pointing to the small town of Badai, 15km to the east. Buried deeper was the gravel highway that once led there.
But Africa is an outlier. Most tropical deforestation is the result of expanding commercial ranching and agriculture, driven by rocketing domestic and global demand for food, fibre and biofuel. In Indonesia, oil palm, a productive source of cooking oil and biodiesel, offers the biggest reason to clear. Between 2000 and 2006 Indonesia planted roughly half a million hectares of oil palm a year, mostly on recently deforested land. The clearance in Brazil, which is mostly illegal, is mainly for pasture; the Amazonian cattle-herd has grown by over 40m head in the past two decades. The explosive recent growth in the cultivation of another oil seed, soyabean, has led to an onslaught on Brazil’s dryland cerrado savannah, which is often disregarded as a forest, though it contains two-thirds as much carbon as the rainforest, mostly in its roots. By moving northwards into the Amazon basin, soya farmers are also driving ranchers deeper into the rainforest.
Grim climate predictions and recent food-price inflation have led to growing fears for food security, adding to the pressure. Foreign governments and investors are increasingly on the lookout to buy cheap, well-watered tropical land. Last year the Saudi Binladin Group tried, unsuccessfully, to secure land in Indonesia’s island of Papua where it wanted to invest $4.3 billion in rice cultivation. China, which has agreed to build and renovate 6,000km of roads in Congo, reportedly wants to cultivate oil palm there on a massive scale. It is the world’s biggest importer of palm oil and global demand for the stuff is soaring, even before much is getting converted into biodiesel, as increasingly it will. And wherever there is such demand for tropical agribusiness, forests are being razed to meet it. Securing a licence to clear rainforest is often easier than buying up and consolidating smallholdings.
What hope of survival have forests, especially the tropical sort, most precious and most threatened? Large-scale defences are now being marshalled by governments, NGOs, scientists and investors, chief among them an international endeavour known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD. Launched with $4.5 billion, it is based on the idea that rich countries should pay poorer ones not to cut down trees. Yet there is a big risk that REDD will deliver much less than is required.
The Earth’s need for forests to soak up carbon emissions is almost limitless. Saving the forest that is left should therefore be considered a modest aim. But even that will require huge improvements in forest management, such as reforming land registries and tightening up law enforcement. Above all, it will require governments to prize forest very much more highly than they do now. Otherwise there will be no chance of the many reforms required outside the forestry sector: in land-use planning and rural development, in agriculture, energy and infrastructure policies, and much else. It will also require politicians to get serious about climate change. All that amounts to a revolution, which is a lot to hope for. But if anything can help bring it about, forests might.
They are crucial in all sorts of ways because of the manifold services they provide. Western taxpayers need the Amazon rainforest to control their climate. Brazil needs it to help feed its rivers and generate hydro-power. Amazonian soya farmers need it to guarantee them decent rainfall. Yet policies at every level conspire to wreak its destruction. Changing them, in Brazil and across the tropical world, is a daunting task. But it is not impossible—and it must be done. The cost of failure would simply be too great.