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CLIMATE CHANGE: Forests Much More Than Carbon Storage

Marcela Valente* - Tierramérica

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 28 2009 (IPS) - The world’s forests and jungles are much more than carbon storage sites and compensation for greenhouse emissions, experts and activists point out to governments that are negotiating a new global climate change treaty.

Cloud forest in Costa Rica. Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

Cloud forest in Costa Rica. Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

Forests hold two-thirds of the planet’s biodiversity, provide vital services in terms of water and food supplies, and sustain the cultural and spiritual identities of some 1.6 billion people, including many indigenous communities that survive in the forest habitat.

This was one of the main conclusions reached by the 13th World Forestry Congress, held Oct. 18-23 in Buenos Aires, which drew more than 4,000 academics, experts, business leaders, government and multilateral officials and representatives of a broad range of non-governmental organisations.

“The 13th Congress… notes with concern the impacts of climate change on forests and strongly emphasises the important role forests play in climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as the need for forest-dependent people and forest ecosystems to adapt to this challenge,” states a document that will be presented to the 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to take place in Copenhagen in December.

The main theme of the Congress, sponsored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and hosted by the Argentine government, was the link between forests and climate change.

At the Forum on Forests and Climate Change, experts presented strategies for reducing greenhouse-effect gases produced by the deforestation and degradation of forested areas.


The scientific consensus is that the accumulation of carbon gases in the atmosphere as a result of human activities is causing global climate change.

Because plant photosynthesis absorbs carbon, forests and jungles serve as storage sites for carbon, which in the form of carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas. Logging and the clearing of forests destroy the storage capacity, and ultimately release the CO2.

According to FAO, some 13 million hectares of forest are logged worldwide each year, which drives up greenhouse gas emissions while damaging local biodiversity and undermining the livelihoods of millions of people.

Forests are not just accumulated carbon, argued Peter Saile, with the international forest policy programme of the German government’s technical cooperation agency, GTZ, presenting a concept that became part of the Congress’s final document.

He said it is very important to have a broader perspective on forests’ environmental services and complementary benefits of preserving them for their biodiversity and the people who live there.

For his part, Gerhard Dieterle, of the World Bank’s forest investment programme, said the negotiators of the new international climate treaty should “put climate change inside a broader agenda of sustainable development.”

According to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nearly 18 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide come from deforestation and forest degradation, which is equivalent to the emissions from the world’s transportation system, or the total emissions of the United States alone.

Voices were also raised at the Forum on the need for sustainable management of forest systems, with the support of the communities that inhabit them.

In late September 2008, the U.N. and the government of Norway presented the pilot programme Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which is expected to take shape at the Copenhagen talks.

Under the programme, wealthy countries would pay developing nations to keep their forests intact.

But with less than two months to go to the Copenhagen meet, there is disagreement about the implementation and effectiveness of the system. Some NGOs suspect that it might benefit only governments and business.

In a conversation with Tierramérica, Thais Linhares, director of the Brazilian Forest Service, explained that her country established the Amazonia Fund last year as part of the REDD initiative so that the government would be paid for preventing emissions by reducing deforestation in the vast Amazon region.

“Our expectation is that in Copenhagen we will move towards a better definition, so that developing countries can capture market resources” aimed at mitigating climate change through halting deforestation, she said. “The Fund is our large national REDD strategy, while we also support other (smaller-scale) projects,” Linhares explained.

However, not everyone agrees that the programme will actually preserve the forests. Activist Ana Filippini, a member of the international secretariat of the World Rainforest Movement, told Tierramérica that “it’s difficult to oppose the REDD initiative in itself.”

But the mechanism is being pushed by governments and businesses, which are the ones that in the end will demonstrate or certify that they will abstain from exploiting forests, she said.

“In order to collect the money, it’s harder for an indigenous community to demonstrate that it is not going to destroy the forest, as REDD requires,” said Filippini.

“The proponents of this initiative even say they want indigenous peoples to participate, but if they are so interested in preserving the forests and the communities, why didn’t they do anything until now?”

Filippini also questioned the fact that the reforestation proposals presented at the World Forestry Congress included industrial-scale monoculture tree plantations, “which have a proven negative impact on soil and water and in aggravating climate change.” “Tree plantations are not forests, they are masses of trees of one single species,” she said.

These are crucial issues in the countdown to COP 15 in Copenhagen.

Roberto Acosta, representative of the Secretariat of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, argued that forests can contribute to reducing emissions by increasing carbon absorption, which would permit “immediate” action to prevent the “catastrophic impacts” of climate change.

Forests have to be adequately monitored, he said, and projects should be developed that strengthen the technical and financial capacities of developing countries in forest preservation, with the participation of local communities – a point he considers “vital” for a successful strategy.

Trond Gabrielsen, of the International Forest and Climate Initiative in Norway, said that reducing gas emissions from deforestation is the fastest, cheapest way to halt 25 percent of the emissions in the coming years.

Gabrielsen added that the REDD initiative must be included in the future global climate change pact to emerge from Copenhagen as the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

 
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