The end of An Inconvenient Truth finds Al Gore stumping for the Lorax: "Plant trees, lots of trees," reads the screen as the credits roll. Gore is fascinated with the Earth's annual carbon dioxide cycle, which he depicts as the planet breathing. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has been trending steadily upward for the past two centuries, but each year there is also an annual rise and fall as vegetation in the northern hemisphere grows and dies with the seasons: inhale, exhale.
One takeaway from the film is that CO2 has fluctuated within a relatively stable range for at least the last several hundred thousand years. Carbon concentration correlates positively with average temperature; and human activity is now pushing atmospheric carbon above that stable range, risking unknown consequences and temperature increases due to the greenhouse effect.
So are trees the solution? Partially. Deforestation produces about 20 percent of global warming emissions and is the second major source after fossil fuel consumption. Reforestation is therefore a key factor in any climate strategy.
Trees under Siege
I remember visiting the rain forest room at the Baltimore Aquarium when I was a child. At the entrance to the steamy jungle simulation, a deforestation doomsday clock ticked forward to 2050 as the depicted forest acreage receded to an absurd fraction of its original coverage. "That can't happen. People will change," I remember thinking. The year 2050 felt like distant future back then, but it's now well within the range of official predictions and policy solutions for global warming.
And well it should be as trees are under siege globally. Overall, the world lost 7.3 million hectares of forest per year from 2000 to 2005. Clashes with timber poachers in the Brazilian Amazon often end in death or displacement for indigenous residents. Nigeria lost 36 percent of its total forest cover and 79 percent of its primary forests between 1990 and 2005. Some species aren't even safe in American backyards. An elderly couple in Vermont recently awoke to find timber thieves had stolen their valuable maples.
Deforestation could also be a precursor to social collapse, as UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond has theorized, pointing to vanished cultures like the Anasazi of the southwest United States and the Easter Islanders of the South Pacific. While it is impossible to reduce the disappearance of a culture to a single variable, both societies were timber intensive—for building pueblos and erecting large heads respectively—and left their lands barren.
What was the last tree felled on Easter Island worth? Riches or pennies: It didn't matter because somebody needed it and was going to cut it anyway. Societies and economies traditionally have trouble calculating forest worth, but modern attempts to assign value to forests and ecosystem services are proving fruitful. One example is the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies and labels sustainably harvested wood products that are then sold at a premium.
Investors are also getting into conservation. Mongabay.com reported last month that UK-based Canopy Capital purchased the rights to the ecosystem services from a 371,000 hectare rain forest reserve in Guyana. Beyond the sale of carbon offset credits, the firm is wagering that living services like "rainfall generation, climate regulation, biodiversity maintenance, and water storage" will have future value in international markets.
Another push for conservation value has come from efforts to pay developing countries not to deforest. Parties to the UN climate conference in Bali last December agreed on the inclusion of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) in future agreements.
The World Bank is also working on REDD payments for developing countries through its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF). The funding is divided into two streams, a Readiness Mechanism to measure country forests and build capacity for monitoring, and a Carbon Finance Mechanism that will pay countries for "verifiably reducing emissions" relative to a baseline scenario. More than $150 million has been allocated to the FCPF, including donations from country governments like Norway and private groups like the Nature Conservancy.
Millions of forest dwellers around the world have the most to lose from deforestation and the most to gain from participation in REDD projects. They banded together in Manaus, Brazil this month to present a position on how indigenous communities should be consulted and included when it comes to ecosystem payments. Some fear that carbon finance could accelerate indigenous dispossession when land rights are unclear.
A dramatic example of how politics affects forest policy is the contrast between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Aerial photos show a forested Dominican side of the border, while the Haitian side is bare. It is estimated that nearly all of Haiti's forests have been felled, often for charcoal for cooking fires. The Dominican Republic has worked on conservation policy, whereas Haiti is a living microcosm of what happens when social and material systems are mismatched with the human will to survive.
Jules Walter, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes he has a partial solution for his native Haiti. His research at the MIT Development Lab has led to cleaner-burning charcoal briquettes made from plant waste, such as corncobs and the byproducts of sugar cane processing. The briquettes yield less dangerous smoke—a common health threat from indoor cooking fires in the developing world. They would also relieve pressure on forests as a source of energy. Walter established the for-profit company Bagazo to market his charcoal, which is cheaper than traditional forms.
The world is also experimenting with fuel derived from renewable living plants, as opposed to limited deposits of fossilized ones, but so far the plants have been poorly chosen, often conflicting with food crops. As a result, the price of food has risen for poor families that depend on palm oil for cooking or corn flour for tortillas.
Regrowth and Sustainable Harvesting
Stopping deforestation is only one step. Sustainable livelihoods within forests are also critical.
As biologist E. O. Wilson writes in The Diversity of Life, rain forests can generate long-term sustainable profits when left intact, as opposed to the short-term revenue of clear-cut timber or slash-and-burn agriculture that often causes erosion and depleted fertility within a farmer's lifetime. The secret lies in what's harvested and how it's grown.
Analog forestry has emerged as one means of sustainable reforestation and forest agriculture. Analog forests are man-made forest gardens that incorporate native plants and mimic the complex mix of biodiversity normally found in the ecosystem, including harvestable species such as fruits and spices. Instead of an orchard or farm on a cleared patch, it is a garden interwoven with the jungle. Ideally the garden grows to a state of climax vegetation—the peak equilibrium of forest health that would exist without human interference.
Analog forestry is used in the Chocó region of Colombia to rehabilitate damaged lands and provide food for forest residents. Working in partnership with the Green Gold initiative's effort to certify sustainable mining, artisanal small-scale miners have reclaimed 47 hectares of degraded mining land. They harvest dozens of species ranging from aquacate to zapote.
The Sacred Glade
What if a tree falls in a forest and nobody's there to hear it? The Japanese Zen koan is meant to quiet the mind's chatter, but perhaps it can also be interpreted as a thought experiment about the future. What if one day, through abuse of the environment, there really is nobody around and yet the trees keep growing and falling? This is a future we certainly wish to avoid.
More than half of humanity now lives in cities, almost ensuring that hundreds of millions of people will live and die without ever setting foot in a real forest. The full effects of this disconnect with humanity's origins are yet to be understood. For all the efficiency, convenience, and culture that cities deliver as a positive form of human organization, they also imply wasteful consumer lifestyles and a constant urban churn that has replaced the primal calm of a lonely mountaintop.
Urban growth displaces forests, wetlands, and arable land. While innovations such as urban gardens and green roofs are a means of integrating natural and man-made systems, there is no substitute for the permanent loss of primary forest.
Future behavior needs to be sensitive to complex dynamics. Recent attempts to protect African trees from being foraged by herbivores disrupted the trees' natural symbiosis with an insect, causing more overall damage than the trees would have received from the usual munching.
There is no silver shovel to dig us out of environmental trouble. On the global scale, geoengineering is the new buzz concept. These interventions could benefit from cautious steps: a light foot clad in a biodegradable moccasin.
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