Global Forest Cover
Forests are important not only for timber and paper; they also provide essential services—for example, they filter water, control water runoff, protect soil, regulate climate, cycle and store nutrients, and provide habitat for countless animal species and livelihood for about a billion people.
Industrialization has taken a heavy toll on the forests around the world. In the pre-industrial phase in the West, forests covered 5.9 billion hectares of the land area. Now it is down to slightly over 4 billion hectares – 31 % of the planet’s land surface (One hectare = 2.47 acres).
According to data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, deforestation was at its highest rate in the 1990s, when each year the world lost on average 16 million hectares of forest—roughly the size of the state of Michigan. However, in some places the forest area expanded, either through planting or natural processes, bringing the global net loss of forest to 8.3 million hectares per year. In the first decade of this century, the rate of deforestation was slightly lower, but still, a disturbingly high 13 million hectares were destroyed annually. As forest expansion remained stable, the global net forest loss between 2000 and 2010 was 5.2 million hectares per year.
These deforestation rates, however, do not capture the full damage done to the global forest-cover. Things like selective logging, road construction, climate change and other activities compromises the health of remaining forests. Therefore, each year the world has less forested area, and the forests that remain are of lower quality. Likewise, replacing naturally grown old forests with a monoculture of an exotic species provides the green cover but greatly reduces biodiversity.
Forests have always been largely threatened by land clearing for agriculture and pasture and by harvesting wood for fuel or industrial uses. In Latin America, Brazil lost 55 million hectares since 1990; between 2000 and 2010, it lost 2.6 million hectares of forest each year, more than any other country. However, lately there is reduction in the rate of deforestation; Brazil aims to cut deforestation rate by 80% by 2020 compared with the 1996–2005 average. But rising beef, corn, and soybean prices are likely to pressure the government to weaken its forest protection, further threatening the world’s largest rainforest.
Along with two other South American countries, Bolivia and Venezuela which also felled large areas of trees, South America region showed the largest forest loss between 2000 and 2010 – losing 40 million hectares of forest.
Africa also suffers from extensive deforestation – it lost around 34 million hectares between 2000 and 2010. The main drivers of deforestation are firewood harvesting charcoal production.
The palm oil production in Indonesia is another large driver of deforestation; the country accounts for almost half of the global output of palm oil. Forest tracts are logged or burned for planting palm trees, which threatens the remaining forests. On the one hand, Indonesia wants to double the palm oil production from the 2009 level and on the other; it wants to protect the forests too. In order to device ways to achieve the twin goals, Indonesia instituted a two-year moratorium in May 2011 on new licenses to convert primary forests to oil palm or other uses. The effectiveness of this ban remains yet to be seen.
The disastrous flooding in 1998 made China think about its green cover; it realized the importance of forest cover for flood control and soil protection. It banned logging in the key river basins and started planting trees at a brisk rate. However, it imports timber that drives deforestation in other countries. For instance, Indonesia became a prime target; is 82% area was covered by forests in 1960s, today less than half of that is under forests.
Canada faced wildfires and insect outbreaks at the turn of the century, leading to massive deforestation and release of CO2.
The case of the United States and EU is different. They added net forest cover but contribute to deforestation as an importer of forest products. In 2011, the US imported forest products worth $20 billion and the EU $110 billion.
On the other side of the globe, Australia’s persistent drought from 2002 to 2010 was double trouble for its forests: the drought restricted forest growth and simultaneously increased fire risk. Wildfires, stoked by extended drought and high temperatures, burned millions of hectares of forest in Australia. Just one mega-fire on February 7, 2009, now known as “Black Saturday,” burned over 400,000 hectares.
But it must be emphasized that not all trees, nor all forests, are alike. Trees added in industrial countries in temperate zones, with different ecological attributes, cannot replace the bounty of biodiversity lost in tropical forests of developing countries. Therefore, protection of tropical forests has more intrinsic value for the global emission control.
No doubt the protection of forests is a wonderful thing, but now we must also start to focus on restricting demand of paper, timber and other forest products. But that’s a lifestyle issue, particularly for the rich countries, which is a hard nut to crack.
Global Warming is Already Here
In September 2013, the IPCC published Volume 1 of its 5th scientific report on climate change. It clearly acknowledged that human activities are the reason behind the global warming – the past three decades have been all warmer than any decade since 1850. Not only that, each of these three decades was warmer than the previous decade.
It also said that in order to have a 66% chance of keeping global warming below 2°C, the carbon budget is 800 gigatonnes. About two-thirds of this carbon budget has already been used up in fossil fuel emissions. What it means is that the longer the world takes to cut down GHG emissions, the tougher actions will be needed in the future which means harsher impact on the economies. [Meanwhile the CO2 level has recently crossed 400 ppm mark for the first time in April 2014, in the human history. Of course, world leaders will continue to pay lip-service about urgent concrete steps to curtail CO2 emission.]
So, the message is clear: the current global climatic disorder is due to global warming.
Even the business world in increasingly factoring-in the effects of adverse climatic events in their future planning. Lot of companies are worried that extreme precipitation and extreme temperatures will negatively impact their operations.
Global Efforts to reduce Deforestation
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that deforestation represents a net 10 per cent of the climate challenge. Loss of green cover is the single largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission. Most tropical countries are aiming for zero deforestation by 2020.
Global initiatives to preserve forest cover, particularly in the developing countries is popularly termed, REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The basic concept is simple: reward developing countries to keep their forests instead of cutting them down. Following negotiations the Bali Action Plan came to be known as REDD+. It recognizes the role of “conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries” going beyond deforestation and forest degradation and expanding carbon stock.
Norway is perhaps the leading donor nation that has rewarded Latin American nations like Brazil for their efforts.
While the idea of helping poor countries with forests to preserve them sounds good and benevolent. But people well familiar with international politics are not convinced that REDD+ can offer any meaningful solution.
First, it only allows rich countries to continue with their business-as-usual approach and their emission continues. In fact, many see it as a license to continue to pollute. Then there are people who are not comfortable with the idea of carbon trading. They see it as commodification of forests as “bundles of carbon sticks.” It automatically sidelines other important functions forests perform in enriching biodiversity and soil quality. The well-being of about 1 billion people dependent on forests also becomes secondary, even if something is planned for them.
The Root Cause of Global Warming
At the root of excessive greenhouse gas emission lays the unbridled excessive and wasteful consumption based lifestyle promoted by the West. Economics overshadow every other dimension of human life, even family and relations. In a lifestyle governed by money and profits the GDP growth has become the prime yardstick of progress. In industrial economies, the growth in GDP has to happen quarter-after-quarter and year-after-year; else the shadow recession begins to caste ominous signs.
The gross domestic product (GDP) is a pure economic number – total market value of final goods and services produced during a specified time interval. It includes all economic transactions regardless of whether they add value to people’s lives or not and whether they are harmful for the society and environment.
Consider, for example, that polluting activities increase the GDP because of the expenses involved in the clean up. Crimes boost the GDP due to expenses on police, security, jails, are legal procedures. Wars and conflicts increase expenditure on weapons; it is certainly not a healthy expenditure.
As people tend to become self reliant, the GDP goes down. If a community decides to grow fruits and vegetables together and share or if community members decide to help each other at times of financial crisis, the GDP decreases. Likewise, if you decide ride a bike in place of car you save on all expenses related to maintenance and running of the car. But you hurt the GDP. Yet another aspect of GDP: if you buy low quality products with shorter lives, you will be buying frequently and boost the GDP. But if you are wise and select high quality goods that last much longer, you will not a frequent spender; the GDP suffers. Thus, wasteful and inefficient products promote GDP.
Moreover, there are many things that never enter GDP even if they are important for people’s well-being. All household and volunteer work is ignored, so is the contribution of nature in the form of resources.
Yet, when people see it as the primary indicator of economic health and people’s well-being, reality gets blurred and the dialog goes in the wrong directions. The GDP was never intended for this role.
Combined with the capitalism as practiced today which is shareholder focused, the economic activities have become narrowly focused on private gains for a few, with capital, to the exclusion of all – employees, society and environment. Until we address this money and greed based monoculture which is the basic driving force behind global warming, all efforts will remain cosmetic and superficial.
What is the Remedy of Global Climatic Disorder
We need to move away from the GDP based activities and focus it on real well-being of people. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen puts it: The goal of development is to enrich people’s life, not enrichment of economy which is merely an important tool to achieve it. The Tiny Himalayan kingdom Bhutan actually does what the rest of the so-called “developed” world is just talking about. Bhutan follows the concept of what it called the “gross national happiness (GNH)” which is a holistic approach to development – it considers well-being of culture, community, environment as well as economy.
It has already influenced the UN and leading authorities on sustainable development. As the global debates on global warming continue endlessly, the question is: why other nations shy away from following Bhutan when its model is grounded on solid principles of peaceful coexistence.