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Using forests to bridge the carbon gap

 IPS 13 June 2019

As global greenhouse gas emissions rise instead of decreasing, forests play an even more crucial role in fighting global warming, since experts believe it will be impossible to prevent a disastrous increase in global temperature without drastically curbing deforestation. (1075 Words) - By Stephen Leahy

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IPS_Using forests to bridge the carbon gap

Family making their way along the San Juan River in the jungles of southeast Nicaragua.  Photo: Germán Miranda/IPS

Despite the vital importance of forests, 13 million hectares are destroyed every year, leading the United Nations to make forests the focus of this year's World Environment Day, Jun. 5.

Global carbon emissions in 2010 were five percent higher than in 2008, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in late May, making the international target of limiting the rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius increasingly impossible to achieve.

Through photosynthesis, trees capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then store it for as long as they remain alive, a process referred to as carbon "sequestration".

"We need forests to bridge the carbon gap," said Stewart Maginnis, head of the Forest Conservation Programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Carbon emission reduction commitments made by countries in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord will not be enough to keep global temperatures near two degrees of additional warming. Scientists believe that an increase of more than two degrees would lead to climate change impacts of disastrous proportions.

Deforestation accounts for roughly 17 percent of total annual emissions. "There is no 'Plan B'. We desperately need forests and reforestation to sequester carbon," Maginnis told Tierramérica from Kigali, Tanzania.

Forests are the focus of this year's World Environment Day not only for their role in storing climate-altering carbon, but also because they generate oxygen and supply water to 50 percent of world's largest cities.

Forests are home to more than half of land-based animals, plants and insects. Moreover, some 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Yet global deforestation continues at an alarming rate: every year, 13 million hectares of forests - an area the size of Nicaragua - are destroyed for wood products and by conversions to cash crops and cattle ranching.

UNEP, IUCN and many other organisations believe the best chance, and maybe the only chance, to change this is through Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programmes that are a key part of the new green economy.

Countries and industries looking to reduce their emissions of carbon can either reduce their physical carbon emissions or purchase carbon credits to offset those emissions under REDD or REDD+ programmes.

REDD+ refers to REDD programmes that go beyond maximising carbon storage to ensuring protection of biodiversity and livelihoods of local people and communities.

"REDD+ strategies of various types are the only way to mobilise enough funds to deal with the drivers of deforestation," said Maginnis.

However, according to Bram Büscher of the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, REDD and other market-based mechanisms to protect forests simply will not work.

"Making money will always trump the ecological benefits of forests in a capitalistic economic system," Büscher said in an interview. "It's simplistic to say everyone wins with REDD. There is nothing win-win under capitalism. It's all about winners and losers," he added.

"Capitalism is inherently unecological. We're trying to rig the system to make it work for the green economy. It's a sham," Büscher maintained.

The United Nations and other institutions are pushing countries to "green their economies" through a shift to renewable energy and by dramatically reducing their resource use, wastes and pollution while meeting the needs of the poorest people.

Capitalism, and particularly the neoliberal version of capitalism, created the multiple crisis we now face, and it is unrealistic to believe it will also be the solution, said Büscher, who has spent more than a decade working in Africa.

"REDD is a new kind of colonialism. The real changes that urgently need to be made are in the rich countries," he stressed.

Rich countries need to make major reductions in their energy and material consumption but "we're not willing to do so," Büscher noted.

Europeans have widely protested a proposal to build a road through Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. China wants to build the road to mine rare earth metals for use in electronics like mobile phones.

"Who in Europe wants to give up buying the latest smart phone?" Büscher asked.

Maginnis insists that REDD is not an excuse for rich countries to do nothing, but just the opposite: rich countries need to make major emissions cuts and ante up a lot of cash to conserve forests and grow new ones.

"We have to get REDD right and that excludes unfettered, market-based versions. It also means ensuring proper land tenure and rights for local people," he said.

Deforestation is usually the result of economic pressures imposed from outside the forests, so not dealing with those dooms efforts to conserve forests and slow climate change, concluded a study involving 60 of the world's top experts on forest governance, "Embracing Complexity: Meeting the Challenges of International Forest Governance. A global assessment report", released in January.

REDD promises to mobilise a great deal of money for conservation to resist those outside economic pressures, but good governance is needed to make sure forests are actually protected on the ground, said Jeremy Rayner, chair of the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO), which conducted the study.

Even REDD+ programmes continue to "explicitly value carbon storage above the improvement of forest conditions and livelihoods," the report concluded.

There is urgency to protect forests, but REDD+ is not the one-size-fits-all solution, Rayner told Tierramérica. "Governance in most regions is not strong enough to handle implementation of REDD," he said.

Many approaches are needed and market-based systems could have a role in some places, whereas fund-based initiatives would work much better in other areas, he said.

Significant problems remain about how to value forests. Nor is there consensus on what a forest is. "Some argue that an oil palm plantation is a forest because it sequesters carbon," he explained.

"Right now we must experiment and try different mechanisms in an open and transparent manner to learn what works and where," Rayner concluded.

*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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