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The Vital Role of Forests: Carbon, Rain and Food

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Forests provide ecosystem services vital to all lifeWe are coming to a better understanding of the vital role that forests play in the general health of planetary ecosystems.  However, alongside our burgeoning awareness, we are also destroying forests in our quest for more land and lumber.

Deforestation is eliminating the Earth’s forests on a massive scale. Each day at least 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest disappear and another 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest are degraded. Overall, FAO estimates that 10.4 million hectares of tropical forest were permanently destroyed each year in the period from 2000 to 2005. About an acre of tropical rainforests are lost every second. If the current trend continues, the world’s rainforests could completely vanish in a hundred years

Forests are being destroyed largely for agricultural purposes and logging. Forests are also cut down as a result of growing urban sprawl. Deforestation results in habitat loss for millions of species that depend on them for their survival. Deforestation undermines the water cycle which can lead to desertification.

Deforestation also drives climate change as trees play a critical role in absorbing or sequestering the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming. The clearing and burning of rainforests are responsible for approximately 15 percent of global carbon emissions. In the U.S., forests absorb 13 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions each year. Based on the most recent satellite data, emissions from deforestation account for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. However, a January 2013 study just out of Dartmouth College shows that deforestation impacts on soil and may release even more carbon than previously thought.

Forest management policy

Wealthy countries have promised to help poorer nations to protect their forests through programs like The Natural Capital Project, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) and The Partnership for Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem services (WAVES). While the developed world has pledged more than 5 billion dollars for this purpose, the money promised has not lived up to these promises.

One recent example involves the country of Ecuador, which has started cutting down its forests for oil drilling operations after the international community failed to provide necessary funding. Conversely, Costa Rica is one of the best examples of successful forest management. The country has managed to double the size of its tropical forests in the last 20 years through national conservation policies. As reported in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Costa Rica’s ban on clearing of mature forests appears to be a key success factor in encouraging agricultural expansion on non-forest lands.

Success in managing forests requires a sound economic plan in support of conservation. There are a number of steps governments can take to help with reduce deforestation including tax breaks, direct payments, and subsidies.

Water and hydro-electric companies can also charge customers through fees embedded in utility bills in order to generate income to pay forest managers. Governments can also legislate financial mechanisms that value natural resources like trees. Under such a scheme, companies are forced to pay for the pollution they generate.

Setting a mandatory carbon price may be the best way to protect forests as market driven programs seem to offer the best approach. Another approach involves projects like the Forest Footprint Disclosure (FFD) which is working with companies on their impact on forests. Initiated in 2008, this is a not-for-profit project of the Global Canopy Foundation that is backed by investors.

A more workable solution is to carefully manage forest resources by eliminating clear-cutting to make sure that forest environments remain intact. The cutting that does occur should be balanced by the planting of enough young trees to replace the older ones felled in any given forest. The number of new tree plantations is growing each year, but their total still equals a tiny fraction of the Earth’s forested land.

REDD

International efforts to curb deforestation are centered on a United Nations-backed scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). REDD+, emerged from the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, was developed to provide financial incentives to countries and landowners to protect and better manage forests.

Forests are not a renewable source of electricity

One of the most troubling trends involves the use of forests as fodder for energy production. To meet this growing demand, U.S. companies have become the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets in 2012. What makes this even worse is that this is being sold as a renewable form of energy production.

As explored by the NRDC, burning our forests is bad for our climate, bad for local ecosystems, and bad for our communities.  In response to this troubling trend, the NRDC and Dogwood Alliance launched a program to protect Southern trees called Our Forests Aren’t Fuel. This campaign is designed to raise awareness about the alarming and rapidly-growing practice of logging forests and burning the trees as fuel to generate electricity.

Carbon forestry

Supporting reforestration to offset carbon emissions is increasingly popular. This is done through the purchase of carbon credits that are linked with the forestry sector with the idea that these new trees will sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

As reviewed in Ecologist, a report by the monitoring and analysis agency Ecosystem Marketplace indicates that over 30 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) was contracted across forest markets in 2010.

Carbon forests can offer a variety of benefits for the environment, however, there is considerable doubt as to whether these planted forests enhance biodiversity. There is also growing support for research that suggests that planted forests may not be as effective as natural forests in inducing rainfall.

Forests are essential to rain

While the relationship between forests and carbon has received a lot of attention, research suggests that forests may also be the driving force behind precipitation which is so vital to overall ecosystem health. As explored in an article in Mongabay, forests may be the key to rainfall and as a consequence, global ecological restoration.

On September 12, 2013, the U.S. Forest Service published a final rule that is expected to improve the agency’s ability to restore land. “This rule will help us improve the resiliency, health and diversity of our forests and grasslands,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “We will now be able to move forward with our partners to focus more energy on action, and less on paperwork, to restore more acres in less time.”

The final rule includes reference to a paper titled “Where do winds come from?” This paper outlines a new meteorological hypothesis in which condensation, not temperature, drives winds. This paper highlights the importance of the world’s forests as the salient driver of precipitation from the coast into a continent’s interior. The theory, known as the biotic pump, was first developed in 2006 by two Russian scientists

This research explains why deforestation also brings a drop in precipitation. The condensation produced by forests creates zones of low pressure that suck in the air from the surrounding regions. Forests create persistent low pressure zones on land and this causes moist winds to blow from the ocean to land.

The theory put forth in this paper explains why there is so little rain in deserts and further posits that if we were to plant enough trees in these zones we could induce rainfall.

The paper’s authors, Victor orshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, explain that, “Preserving and recovering forest cover may prove to be the cheapest and most reliable means of ensuring regional environmental sustainability.” They also indicate that their research on biotic pumps suggests that industrial plantations do not move rain as effectively as natural forests.

One of the chief findings in this research involves the relationship between forests and agriculture. Put simply, the more forests we lose, the less rain will reach continental interiors.

Forests and agriculture

The relationship between forests and agriculture was also addressed in May at the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition. At this conference, scientists and leaders from around the world largely agreed that forests are essenatial to sustainable food supplies. They concluded that forests contribute to food security including the provision of ecosystem services like the regulation of water flow, and the protection of soils against erosion.

The relationship between forests and agriculture is a tragically ironic vicious cycle. We destroy forests to make more room for agriculture, while deforestation appears to undermine agricultural productivity.  We then need more land to produce crops to make up for the reduced productivity.

The issues associated with food supplies will become even more important as we strive to meet the challenge of feeding an ever expanding population. A growing body of research indicates that forests are essential to agricultural productivity.

Forests are far more than an important source of carbon sequestration, they are essential to the water and food on which all life depends.
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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: CIFOR, courtesy flickr

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