Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Saving the rainforest much better solution to global warming

Agreed, the destruction of the rainforest is much more problematic than cars. So why does the media talk about man's burning of fossil fuel, and we hear almost nothing about the rainforest? I'm glad to see this article, and I hope the BBC and other media outlets will concentrate on this issue more in the future.

Printable version

In search of forestry's El Dorado

Andrew Mitchell (Image: Global Canopy Programme)
Andrew Mitchell

The world's tropical forests face the double challenge of climate change and deforestation, says Andrew Mitchell. In this week's Green Room, he explains why he is not giving up on the "impossible dream" of convincing governments that these trees are worth more alive than dead.

Deforestation (Image: AP)
Paying a premium to prevent the loss of the Amazon could be one of the best insurance policies planet Earth has on offer

Rumour has it that Brad Pitt is going into the Amazon.

He will play out the story of an enigmatic explorer in search of his personal El Dorado.

The explorer in question was Colonel Percy Fawcett, a highly resilient English surveyor who set off almost 85 years ago on his final expedition into the Amazon.

Fawcett, a celebrated veteran of many journeys into the unknown, secretly believed he had discovered scientific evidence of a lost civilisation within the vastness of what today is known as the Xingu, in north-eastern Brazil.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he remained resolute and journeyed repeatedly into the forest, determined to find it.

Newspapers published despatches detailing his quest for many months, but then all news ceased.

Like Livingstone 50 years before him, Fawcett had vanished into a dark continent; only this time, no-one ever found him.

'Impossible dream'

After three decades at the conservation frontline, much of it now encased in concrete jungles searching for a seemingly impossible solution to inexorable rainforest destruction, I am beginning to feel a little bit like Percy Fawcett.

Perhaps I am on the trail of an impossible dream.

Fawcett gave his elusive goal the cryptic name of "Z".

The same could equally apply to the El Dorado that I and many others have been searching for: an economic argument to convince governments that the standing rainforest could be worth more alive than dead.

Tropical rainforest (Image: BBC)

The fact that tropical forests continue to go up in flames, contributing seven billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually (more than all the world's cars, ships and planes), suggests that my Amazonian "Z" may not exist.

Unless, that is, a completely new way to discover it exists.

A clutch of events last week offer several apparently contradictory clues as to how my El Dorado might be found.

At the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), currently in session in New York, the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) released a report on Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change.

It contained the projection that rising global temperatures may condemn forests over the next century to become fire-strewn savannahs, whatever efforts governments may take to conserve them.

This resonates with the finding, recently published in the journal Science, that the Amazon's trees capture a whopping two billion tonnes of CO2 annually; but that during the devastating Amazon drought of 2005, they released five billion tonnes back out again.

Some journalists have asked in response: "What's the point in saving the Amazon, if it's doomed anyway?"

Our common reaction in the face of these uncertainties is to believe that the risks of doing nothing are less than any remedial action we could take.

In this case, the reverse is almost certainly true.

Take cover

Oliver Phillips - the lead author of the Science paper - Yadvinder Malhi of Oxford University, I and others have indicated that halting deforestation may increase the forest's resilience to climate change.

So, my view is that far from reducing efforts to halt deforestation, we should redouble them.

Let me put it another way: if a person has malaria and you want to save their life by keeping their temperature down, surely the worst way to do it is to keep kicking them in the stomach or even amputating their legs.

At the Summit of the Americas last week in Trinidad, a Blueprint for a Sustainable Energy Partnership for the Americas was presented to the many heads of state who attended the summit.

Aeroplane taking off
If you were in charge of a departing flight in which there was a 10% chance of the aircraft crashing, would you recommend that everyone happily remain in their seats whilst an argument ensued over probabilities?

One of its three components was a new "vision for the Amazon". But what has the Amazon got to do with energy?

Brazil is a leader in green power, with 40% of its cars being run on bioethanol from sugarcane and 70% of its electricity sourced from hydropower.

Even in the Sao Paulo hotel where I am writing this, lights in the corridor only come on when I walk through.

The connection between energy and the Amazon is water.

The evapotranspiration of the Amazon's trees, which generates billions of tonnes of water each day, may significantly underpin food and energy security in the region.

Dr Jose Marengo, a scientist at Brazil's space research agency (INPE), has postulated that a proportion of this moisture is carried south on a low-level atmospheric jet stream across southern Brazil and down to the La Plata Basin.

If so, this vast volume of water helps sustain a trillion dollar agricultural industry, feeds hydropower, and could prove to be essential to Brazil's booming biofuel industry.

It seems to me that a new way of looking at the Amazon is to consider it as a locally owned "eco-utility", which is providing ecosystem services across regional and global distances that currently no-one pays for.

It is likely that these services are potentially worth a great deal to those who deliver them and to businesses whose prosperity depends on them.

A 10% fall in rainfall over time - less than some conservative predictions - could deliver a 40% drop in river flow, for example.

Perversely, beneficiaries such as Brazilian beef and soy farmers are at the same time potentially undermining their future success. through their expansion into the forest.

An international bank investing in agriculture and hydropower in the region might legitimately ask if the former investment is, in fact, weakening the latter.

Could the beneficiaries therefore be persuaded to pay a tax to maintain the services?

Doing so might make the Amazon worth more standing up than cut down. This would help sustain global food and energy security, worth billions to national economies.

Hidden value

The question that businesses and policymakers will want answered is whether continued deforestation could make the giant soy fields of Mato Grosso dry up or the lights go out in Buenos Aires.

At INPE last week, I was privileged to join some of the region's leading scientists, economists and community development specialists to brainstorm the idea of valuing the Amazon as an "eco-utility".

The meeting was funded under an innovative new UK government programme called Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (ESPA).

We concluded that we can't really be sure where the rain goes, and argued over its possible reduction, ranging from a lot to a little.

Deforestation (Image: AFP)
What incentive system could reduce the loss of tropical forests?

Yet we were convinced that a new positive incentive system was needed, and that a year of effort lay ahead to figure out how it might work.

Our scientific caution is understandable; but for a policymaker, is it really the point?

If you were in charge of a departing flight in which the captain announced the destination was uncertain but the engineer said there was a 10% chance of the aircraft crashing, would you recommend that everyone happily remain in their seats whilst an argument ensued over probabilities?

I believe the credit crunch, climate change, and consumer appetites are creating a crucial tipping point in this historical debate, which will determine how the world's political process deals with the erosion one of the greatest natural capital assets on Earth.

If I can echo Einstein: it is unlikely that Amazonian nations will be able to solve this problem with the same thinking that caused it.

Although the Amazon belongs to no-one else but these nations and their people, how it fares affects us all, and so is a scientific, political and economic intelligence test for everyone.

Fawcett's ecological ignorance hid the Amazon's true value, which was all around him.

His El Dorado exists today as the vast Xingu Reserve, a land of forests quietly maintaining our resilience because the indigenous communities have maintained theirs.

But will the forests Fawcett once journeyed through disappear?

Will my "Z" in the Amazon become a romantic metaphor for an ineffective environmental Zeitgeist?

I do not know; but expecting science to offer a certainty that it can never deliver excuses inaction and stokes risk.

Who among us has refused to buy insurance because we cannot know accurately when our house will burn down or exactly when our car will be stolen?

Paying a premium to prevent the loss of the Amazon could be one of the best insurance policies planet Earth has on offer.


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