Thursday, July 2, 2009

The UN Says Trees Matter....Really?

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

With all of the billions of dollars being invested in clean technology, carbon reduction and smart grids, it's amazing that forests have been largely overlooked as a source of carbon capture and storage. As a new report by the United Nations Environment Program points out: "forests...have been doing the job in a tried and tested way for millennia." Unfortunately, when forests are cleared via slash and burn, that carbon is unlocked. The UN estimates that 20% of global emissions come from releasing carbon stored in forests, tundra and other ecosystems.

The UNEP report comes at a pretty significant time. There has been a lot of ongoing debate leading up the next round of climate talks in Copenhagen about the role of forests and land use in reducing carbon levels. Establishing baselines, proving that money directly creates a carbon benefit (aka additionality), insuring that they don't burn and modeling ecosystems is pretty complex, and has made forest preservation an outsider when it comes to cap and trade and carbon finance.

I have written about REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) before, and the idea that forests have a carbon value that can be quantified and monetized. An acre of tropical forest can store 100 tons or more of carbon, and UNEP estimates that we are losing at least 20 million acres a year. They also point out that a number of other natural systems, from peatlands to savanna are under similar pressure. The greenhouse gas math is scary. Population growth and the need for income is driving a lot of the destruction, and providing an economic solution, for example by paying indigenous groups to care for forests and set them aside, rather than farm them, is an elegant way to 'unlock the value' of the forest land without unlocking the carbon. ClimatePath has been working with several groups that are using the voluntary carbon markets to do just that.

I have to say, it is a sign of how far decoupled and out of balance our global economy has become that the idea of protecting forests and other natural ecosystems as a way of fighting climate change is open for discussion. While the true 'cost of carbon' is open for debate, can you picture a world without forests? Aside from the carbon, deforestation is often irreversible, and deadly for the plants and animals that call specific forests home. For these reasons alone, let's err on the side of saving them.

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