Wednesday, July 9, 2008

This is why forest protection needs to be part of the climate change solution!

Some people are inherently suspicious about protecting or planting forests as a strategy to slow the pace of climate change... "Fossil fuel emissions have got us into this trouble, we need to reduce fossil fuel emissions to get us out!"

Although it is true that a massive global scaling up of efforts to deeply cut fossil fuel emissions is needed, fossil fuel emissions have not been the only cause of our current climate change crisis: A full third of the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution came from carbon losses from soils and vegetation - deforestation, wetland draining, forest degradation, agriculture, etc. (136 Pg C from soils and vegetation; 270 Pg C from fossil fuels).

Industrialization has indeed been the root of our climate change crisis, but not only through fossil fuels! We need to protect and restore forests and other carbon-rich ecosystems (like peatlands) if we are going to solve this global crisis!

For the source of 'one-third' statistic used in this post, check out a presentation given by Daniel Martino from the IPCC earlier this year in Iceland (slide 16).

What do you think about this fact? Are you convinced that forest protection and restoration should be part of the fight against global climate change?


TJGray said...

Hmmm. but what about organizations that offer to plant tries when you fly? How does anyone know what happens to the money or if it actually results in carbon reductions in the air?

Chris Henschel said...

Thanks for your comment tjgray,

You raise an important question about the reliability of carbon offsets. These are a bit of a pandora's box in general. Forest carbon offsets are even more challenging because carbon stored in trees represents an impermanent emission reduction relative to simply not emitting GHGs from fossil fuels (because the trees could die and decompose again after sequestering the carbon).

But offsets are only one possible policy option, and forests shouldn't be thrown out with this policy option's bathwater. Other things could be done to make forests part of the solution, such as government funding or land use decisions supporting forest protection.

victor said...

the most straight forward answer to your question is "you will never KNOW what happens to the money" - you will have to trust that company that they really do what they promise to do with your money.
but even then: Chris' remark also means that 'offsetting' your flight emissions with tree planting basically makes the assumption that the trees that you paid for being planted will live eternally or, if they die, they will always be replaced by new trees that will sequester the carbon that has been released by the dying and decaying of the original tree. this assumption seems questionable and it might seem even more questionable that a company that you pay now to plant a tree will make sure this tree will always be replaced once it dies.
for all these reasons, 'offsetting' your flight emissions (which are real emissions) with tree planting offsets (which might not represent 'real' and permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) is an idea that makes a lot of probably questionable assumptions.
there are better ways of offsetting your flight emissions (the best of all is obviously not to fly in the first place, but that would be offsetting either; this would be a real emission reduction) and usually, the more 'real' they become the more pricey they become too. probably the best ones are offsets that carry the 'Gold Standard' label (which incidentally excludes forestry projects).
the david suzuki foundation has a brief and quite informative page on offsets in general and come to the same conclusion that 'Gold Standard' probably represents the best bet at present:
hopefully, these comments help you consider your next offset purchase.

p.s. as for forests, I agree with Chris that offsets are only one way to deal with forests in relation to climate change and I also think that offsets (and any other market based options) are probably the worst of the options imaginable (well, besides ignoring them altogether)

Chris Henschel said...

Hi Victor,

Thanks for your informative comment, with which I completely agree.

Did you see Ontario's announcement yesterday to protect 225,000 square kilometers of northern boreal forest, including a priority on important carbon sinks? To my mind this is exactly how you would want want a government to approach the use of forests in climate change mitigation strategies: lots of avoided emissions and no offsetting. What do you think?

victor said...

Yes, I saw your post; thanks for sharing that. For me as an European, it is quite amazing: that area which is announced to be protected is larger than Great Britain (but even for Canada it seems quite a sizeable chunk: with wikipedia's help I just established that it is a full quarter of Ontario's land mass)

I think this is a move that can only be welcomed, particularly given the otherwise rather poor climate change record of the Canadian federal government. I also noticed that they don't just focus on the carbon aspects of this conservation effort but also, as you mention in your post, consider other "key ecological features", e.g. biodiversity.

In my view this is something that always needs to be kept in mind when talking about forests and climate change – that their carbon storing capacity is only one of many very good reasons to protect forests, albeit a very important one.

This is also something that is also important to remember in relation to offset projects (to come back to TJGray's comment). Many 'tree planting offset projects' focus on fast growing monoculture plantations. The many negative implications of such practices need also be kept in mind when deciding to purchase such offsets (and are, I suspect, one of the reasons why the Gold Standard does not include forestry projects). Watch the very moving movie “The Carbon Connection” to show the impacts of such a monoculture (eucalyptus) offset project on a farming community in Brazil ( on the left is a link to “watch the entire movie”)