Climate Change, Environment, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, North America

Wildfires Increasing Despite Efforts to Slow Deforestation

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Jun 4 2010 (IPS) - An agreement reached at an international conference last week pledged over four billion dollars to the U.N.’s effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that come from deforestation and forest degradation. But a study published Friday questions what impact that effort, called REDD, can have.

The study, in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, finds the carbon emissions eliminated through reducing the deforestation of some Amazonian forests may be partially cancelled out by the fact that fires have increased in those forests.

“The results were a surprise because we expected that fires would decrease with the decrease of deforestation following the implementation of REDD,” said Luiz Aragão, an environmental scientist at the University of Exeter and lead author of the study. “But the correct hypothesis was…that fire increased even with the decrease of deforestation.”

By analysing satellite data on deforestation and fires in the Brazilian Amazon, the authors showed that nearly two- thirds of the land with reduced deforestation has experienced an increase in the rates at which fires occur.

This is widely due to farmers’ continued reliance on the slash-and-burn method of clearing land, which even when it does not burn forests directly can leak into bordering forest areas or be targeted at the undergrowth of those forests so that farmers can grow crops under the trees’ canopy.

This burning of forest regrowth is releasing the carbon stored in the vegetation into the atmosphere, but, the study says, it is not accounted for by Brazil’s deforestation monitoring system.

Another factor is that hotter temperatures are gradually drying out the rainforest, which would typically be too humid and wet to sustain fires. The study, in fact, was “motivated by the fact that several global circulation models show that the Amazon will get drier in the 21st century, making it a fire-prone system,” said Aragão.

Left unburned – and unforested – trees and undergrowth have exactly the opposite effect as they do when burning or rotting: they absorb the carbon in the atmosphere, thus acting as a powerful force against climate change.

Encouraging people and companies to leave these “carbon sinks” standing was the main justification for the REDD programme, in which funding from industrial countries goes to reducing deforestation activities in developing countries.

REDD got a large boost last week when a conference on climate and forests in Oslo concluded with Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, the U.K. and the U.S. agreeing to finance the programme with a combined four billion dollars. One billion of that is a deal by which Norway will pay Indonesia to leave some of its rainforests standing.

Scaling back the rapid deforestation of its vast rainforests is key to Indonesia’s goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020, compared to the potential level at which they would be without emissions reduction action. But concerns have been raised in the past several months that the country would simply reforest former rainforest land with commercial oil palm and timber plantations.

Monday, though, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said his country would, under the agreement with Norway, revoke forestry licenses owned by palm oil and timber firms and suspend the issuing of new concessions for two years. Reports say that suspension will not come into effect until 2011.

REDD and its offshoot, REDD Plus, which includes measures to encourage reforestation, have been coming under significant criticism for years.

One main criticism stems from the fact that it rewards logging companies for not logging on portions of their land but offers no reward to those – like indigenous communities – that have always preserved their rainforests and the carbon-absorbing capabilities those forests happen to have. Indeed, indigenous groups regularly criticise REDD for encouraging the perception that forests are simply carbon sinks to be used to offset the polluting activities of firms in industrial countries.

Studies by NGOs like Greenpeace have found that halting the deforestation on a given patch of land sometimes just means the logging company moves a few acres over to log somewhere else. This “leakage” means that the polluting activities the trees were meant to offset are, in fact, not offset by anything and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise.

Now, the Science study says the same phenomenon is occurring when REDD fails to address the land management practices on the areas around preserved forests. Slash and burn of undergrowth or burning that leaks into the bordering forests releases greenhouse gases that REDD was meant to keep the vegetation absorbing.

But, in this case, at least a possible solution exists.

The study found land management that did not use fires reduced the incidence of fire on forested land by as much as 69 percent.

Aragão therefore says there should be a “shift from slash and burn to more sustainable land management”.

“The implications for REDD are that, first, we need a monitoring system that can monitor the fire and also can monitor the secondary forests that are being deforested under these areas…that are not monitored by the Brazilian deforestation system,” he said. “And the second one is that there is a need to shift the land usage in the Amazon from the conventional [slash-and-burn] way to a more managed way where fire is not used.”

Left unaddressed, however, increasing fire frequency “could jeopardise the benefits” from REDD, and, concludes the paper, “the carbon savings achieved by avoiding deforestation may be partially negated”.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags