Forests back in fashion as weapon to combat climate change

by Michael Smith

The Earth's forests, which are perhaps one of the greatest, if not indeed the greatest, natural defenses against climate change, got somewhat of a boost recently with Britain's Prime Minister and a host of environmental lawyers throwing their support behind plans to protect them and eventually include the forestry sector in carbon markets.

Now who would have thought that the experts suddenly realize what we who have had dealings and have been working in forestry and related sectors for most of our lives have known all the time and those that set up managed forestry have known for centuries, namely that forests are good for the Earth.

A review commissioned by Gordon Brown and led by advisor Johan Eliasch has concluded that deforestation in countries heavily covered by rainforest could be halved in the next 12 years and the world's forestry sector could be carbon neutral – effectively sustainable in the long term – by 2030.

The review looks at the financial mechanisms needed to make this happen and comes down heavily in favour of wealthy industrialized nations offering funding to support forestry in poorer nations and somehow incorporating the carbon sink effect of existing forests into global carbon trading.

In a nutshell, the report says that countries that protect their forests should be rewarded for doing so by the international community.

The specific mechanisms recommended for doing this are slightly more complex.

Mr Eliasch said: “Saving forests is critical for tackling climate change. Without action on deforestation, avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will be next to impossible, and could lead to additional climate change damages of $1 trillion a year by 2100.

“Including the forest sector in a new global deal could reduce the costs of tackling climate change by up to 50% and therefore achieve deeper cuts in emissions, as well as reducing poverty in some of the world's poorest areas and protecting biodiversity.

“Deforestation will continue as long as cutting down and burning trees is more economic than preserving them. Access to finance from carbon markets and other funding initiatives will be essential for supporting forest nations to meet this challenge.”

I wonder whether readers remember that a while ago the papers and the media were full of suggestions that forests actually are bad for the environment. Don't ask me what those experts had been drinking but... Forests are more than carbon neutral; they are carbon sinks, and we need more of them and not just old forests. New planted and commercially managed forests and woodlands have been proven to be as useful as primal forests.

The review has been broadly welcomed in political circles, but environmental NGOs have given it a frostier reception.

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Tom Picken said: “Allowing rich countries and businesses to 'offset' their carbon dioxide emissions by buying up huge tracts of forest is riddled with problems and will do little to tackle climate change.

“The industrialised world must rapidly cut its dependency on fossil fuels if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change from taking hold. The Eliasch plan will simply create a smokescreen allowing us to carry on polluting - it's the climate change equivalent of sub-prime mortgages.

“Forests and forest communities urgently require protection. Financial packages are needed - but we must also address the underlying causes of deforestation, such as biofuels, excessive meat consumption and industrial logging.”

We can but agree with the statements by the Friends of the Earth, though I also know that often FoE have a problem with commercial forestry per se and would like to see forests and woodlands remain unmanaged. This is not something that works and is not good for the forests and woodlands either, especially not with those, say, in Europe who have always been managed for the last millennia and if they would be no longer managed they would soon completely fall apart, literally. This is something that I have spoken about as regards to the coppice woodlands in the South of England, for instance.

The carbon offset idea, in my opinion, is a total stupidity anyway and we must get away from this notion that we can pay our way out of polluting the planet by paying, say, Brazil or such, to conserve their forests. I am sorry, but this notion is ludicrous. The developed world cannot be allowed to continue polluting just because they can buy carbon credits from the Third World. This is just not sustainable.

© M Smith (Veshengro), December 2008