Forest for the trees

There is a consensus among climate scientists that the net greenhouse gas emission reductions we must achieve to keep warming below dangerous levels cannot happen without the agricultural sector. They are right, it can’t.

There are three reasons for this assertion.

The first is that emission reductions from energy efficiency, mitigation and renewable projects will struggle to keep pace with ever-growing emissions from global energy demand. Mitigation projects in energy sectors will slow emission rates but leave legacy emissions in the atmosphere.

The second reason follows from a need to deal with this legacy. Smart agricultural and forestry practices can suck back CO2 and store it in vegetation and soil – so-called biosequestration. In Australia the sequestration potential in agriculture alone is 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (CO2e) per annum, or a quarter of Australian anthropogenic emissions with the bonus that soil with more carbon in it is far better for production that soil with less.

The third reason, and the big one, is land clearing. Globally we are still cutting down forests to grow food at a rate of 35,000 hectares a day, or an area equivalent to the urban footprint of Sydney every five days. On its own, this source accounts for 18 per cent of global emissions.

The problem is how to reduce land clearing.

We have cleared vegetation ever since we invented agriculture some 10,000 years ago and even the Ancient Greeks knew that clearing altered climate. Yet we can’t stop ourselves, because mechanised agriculture has become the engine of prosperity from Persia to Pennsylvania. It is quite something to tell a government minister that his government should forego the economic opportunity and the social security a robust agricultural sector brings. “Why not develop available land,” he will say, “there are mouths to feed.”

It is much easier to sell the idea of keeping the trees to the indigenous land owner, who is pained when forced to fell his trees to fund his children’s education.

And this is the nub of the matter. For what we have cleared are forests – vast stands of carbon locked up in the timber and in the soil that supports the trees (at least 40 per cent of the carbon even in the tallest rainforest is in the soil as plant roots and organic matter). Even where the logs are taken for product, clearing releases the carbon from the tree branches and roots through fire or decomposition and as exposed soil dries out, so the carbon oxidises to the atmosphere.

Enter a hugely contentious solution called REDD, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. The text of the Copenhagen accord describes what it means:

We recognise the crucial role of reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation and the need to enhance removals of greenhouse gas emission by forests and agree on the need to provide positive incentives to such actions through the immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus, to enable the mobilisation of financial resources from developed countries.”

In short, the west pays to avoid deforestation and so help reduce that 18 per cent slice of global emissions.

REDD, and its latest manifestation REDD-plus (same idea but with wider scope), are criticised for two reasons.

REDD projects amount to welfare payments to the developing countries where the projects reside. And welfare is disliked by both giver and recipient.

Then there is a vociferous green argument against the market approach to delivery as in this case there will be cowboys and governments who rip off the funds before they reach the resource owners. So despite the accord, REDD has been slow to start.

Lost somewhat in this debate on clearing is another mechanism for reducing degradation of forests, Improved Forest Management (IFM).

This is where emission reduction comes from projects on lands designated for forestry. Mitigation is achieved through combinations of longer harvest rotations, improvements to silviculture, better harvest practices and a specific category of protecting forests that would otherwise have been logged.

Whatever the specifics IFM is more like a commercial transaction, industry to industry, and is more comfortable to buyers. The outcome is better managed forests that continue to sequester carbon while emissions are avoided. In the developing countries where these projects are most likely, the forests also remain to supply traditional use.

It would be unfortunate if arguments over REDD derailed or slowed the “immediate establishment of a mechanism …to enable the mobilisation of financial resources from developed countries,” as stated in Copenhagen, because IFM already exists as a mechanism that can deliver.

It would be cheeky to call IFM green, but it is definitely not REDD.


This piece first appeared in Climate Spectator in 2010.

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