Tropical forest damage is bad enough. New thinking suggests it could prove far more ruinous in terms of the climate crisis.
We know already that human activities are causing devastating forest damage. Now a new study shows the loss we face could be much worse than we think.
Here, it says, is how to multiply your country’s contribution to solving the carbon problem sixfold. It’s simple. Do not do anything to your intact tropical forest. Don’t put roads around it, hunt in it, or select prize lumps of timber from it; don’t quarry, mine or plant oil palms in it. Just protect it.
Researchers have calculated that – compared with clearing it – the benefits of benign neglect are 626% higher than all previous accounting. And that’s just the calculation for the first 13 years of this century. Instead of an estimated 340 million tonnes of carbon spilled into the atmosphere, the figure from clearing forests now becomes 2.12 billion tonnes.
And a second team of scientists has identified a way to keep those conservation promises and carefully protect those forests and other habitats already declared protected areas. That too is simple: be a rich country in the northern hemisphere. That way, you might be able to count on the resources to back up the good intentions.
The role of the world’s forests in what climate scientists like to call the carbon budget – the annual traffic of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from all sources and back again into green plants, rocks and oceans – is a complicated one, and the play between human intrusion and the natural habitats makes it even more of a headache.
“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying”
Broadly, of the world’s tropical rainforests, only around 20% can be considered now intact. This by 2013 was an area of around 5.49 million square kilometres – an area much bigger than the European Union, yet smaller than Australia – but this green space concentrates 40% of all the carbon found in the trunks, branches and leaves of the world’s surviving natural tropical foliage, and gulps down carbon from the atmosphere at the rate of a billion tonnes a year.
So tropical forests play a vital role in worldwide national pledges, made in Paris in 2015, to contain global heating to “well below” a global average increase of 2°C by the end of the century. The planet has already warmed by 1°C in the last century, thanks to profligate human use of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet’s natural forests.
And between 2000 and 2013, human growth and demand has reduced the area of intact forests by more than 7%. What the latest research has done is try to make a realistic estimate of the enduring cost to the planet.
“Usually, only ‘pulse’ emissions are considered – these are emissions released the instant intact forest is destroyed,” said Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland in Australia.
“Our analysis considers all impacts, such as the effects of selective logging, foregone carbon sequestration, expanding effects on the edges of forests, and species extinction.
Better funding needed
“We were shocked to see that when considering all of the available factors, the net carbon impact was more than six times worse for the climate.”
Forest destruction has accelerated this century. Dr Maxwell and his co-authors report in the journal Science Advances that they considered all the carbon that was not sequestered by forest degradation between 2000 and 2013, along with the impacts of road clearance, mining, selective logging and overhunting of the animals that naturally disperse forest seeds, to arrive at their new estimate of the price in carbon emissions to be paid for destruction.
“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying,” said James Watson, of the University of Queensland, and a co-author.
“Humanity needs to better fund the conservation of intact forests, especially now we’ve shown their larger than realised role in stabilising the climate.”
And in the same week, British scientists confirmed that – around the globe – protected areas are not reducing human pressure on the natural wilderness. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they looked at satellite evidence, together with census and crop data, to see what humans had so far done to 12,315 protected areas between 1995 and 2010.
Threat of protection
In every global region, there had been evidence of human encroachment. Overall, northern hemisphere nations and Australia had been more effective at keeping down human pressure in the areas set aside for conservation, compared to advances into unprotected areas.
But in those parts of the world where biodiversity is richest – South America, Southeast Asia and Africa south of the Sahara – human damage was significantly higher in protected grasslands, forests, mangrove swamps and other habitats than it was in unprotected areas. In parts of South America, clearance for agriculture in protected regions was 10% higher than in unprotected zones.
“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularly in the tropics,” said Jonas Geldmann of the University of Cambridge, who led the study.
“Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed,” he said.
“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed.”
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