A cloud forest in Costa Rica.
Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS
Forests Much More Than Carbon Storage
By Marcela Valente
The bid to include forests in initiatives to mitigate climate change is turning out to be a sensitive issue for the planet.
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 26 (Tierramérica).- The world's forests and jungles are much more than sites to store carbon and compensate for greenhouse emissions, experts and activists warn governments that are negotiating a new global pact to confront climate change.
Forests hold two-thirds of the planet's biodiversity, they provide vital services in water and food supply and sustain the cultural and spiritual identities of some 1.6 billion people, including many indigenous communities that survive in the forest habitat.
This is one of the main conclusions drawn at the 13th World Forestry Congress, held Oct. 18-23 in Buenos Aires, with the participation of more than 4,000 people, among them academic experts, business leaders, government and international officials and representatives of a broad range of non-governmental organizations.
"The 13th Congress... notes with concern the impacts of climate change on forests and strongly emphasizes the important role forests play in climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as the need for forest-dependent people and forest ecosystems to adapt to this challenge," states a document that will be presented to the 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to take place in Copenhagen in December.
With backing from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Argentine government hosted the Congress, where the core of the debate was the link between forests and climate change.
The matter was taken up at the Forum on Forests and Climate Change, where experts presented strategies for reducing the greenhouse-effect gases that are produced by processes of deforestation and degradation of forested areas.
The accumulation of carbon gases that reach the atmosphere as a result of various human activities is causing global climate change, according to the now broadly accepted science.
Because plant photosynthesis absorbs carbon, forests and jungles serve as vast storage sites for carbon, which in the form of CO2 is the principal greenhouse-effect gas. Logging and clearing of forests removes the storage capacity, and ultimately release the carbon.
According to FAO, some 13 million hectares of forest are logged worldwide each year, with effects on gas emissions, but also damaging local biodiversity and undermining the livelihoods of millions of people.
Forests are not just accumulated carbon, argued Peter Saile, of the international forest policy program of the German government's technical cooperation agency, GTZ, as he presented a concept that became part of the Congress's final document.
He said it is very important to have a broader perspective on forests' environmental services and complementary benefits of preserving them for their biodiversity and the people who live there.
For his part, Gerhard Dieterle, of the World Bank's forest investment program, said the negotiators of a new climate pact should "put climate change inside a broader agenda of sustainable development."
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nearly 18 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide come from deforestation and forest degradation, which is equivalent to the emissions from the world's transportation system, or the total emissions of the United States alone.
The Forum also heard from those who insisted on the need for sustainable management of forest systems, with the support of the communities that inhabit them.
In late September 2008, the UN and the government of Norway presented the pilot program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which is expected to take shape at the Copenhagen talks.
Under that program, wealthy countries would pay developing countries to maintain their forests intact, but with less than two months before the Copenhagen meet, disagreement persists about the implementation and effectiveness of the system. Some NGOs suspect that it might benefit only governments and businesses.
In a dialogue with Tierramérica, Thais Linhares, director of the Brazilian Forest Service, explained that her country last year established the Amazonia Fund as part of the REDD initiative so that the government would be paid for preventing emissions by reducing deforestation in the vast Amazon region.
"Our expectation is that in Copenhagen we will advance towards a better definition, so that developing countries can capture market resources" aimed at mitigating climate change through halting deforestation, she said. "The Fund is our great national REDD strategy, and we support other (smaller-scale) projects," Linhares explained.
But not everyone agrees that this initiative will actually preserve the forests. Activist Ana Filippini, member of the international secretariat of the World Rainforest Movement, told Tierramérica that "it's difficult to oppose the REDD initiative in itself."
But the mechanism is being pushed by governments and businesses, which are the ones that in the end have the capacity to demonstrate or certify that they will abstain from exploiting the forest. "In order to collect the money, it's harder for an indigenous community to demonstrate that it is not going to destroy the forest, as REDD requires," Filippini said.
"Those who are promoting this initiative even want indigenous peoples to participate, but if they are so interested in preserving the forests and the communities, why didn't they do anything until now?" she wonders.
Filippini also questions the fact that among the reforestation proposals included in the World Forestry Congress were industrial-scale monoculture tree plantations, "which have a proven negative impact on soil and water and in aggravating climate change."
"Tree plantations are not forests, they are masses of trees of one single species," she said.
These are crucial issues in the countdown to COP 15 in Copenhagen.
Roberto Acosta, representative of the Secretariat of the Convention on Climate Change, argued that forests can contribute to reducing emissions by increasing carbon absorption, which would permit "immediate" action to prevent the "catastrophic impacts" of climate change.
Forests have to be adequately monitored, he admitted, and projects should be developed that strengthen the technical and financial capacities of developing countries in forest preservation, with the participation of local communities - a point he considers "vital" for a successful strategy.
Trond Gabrielsen, of the International Forest and Climate Initiative in Norway, said that reducing gas emissions from deforestation "is the fastest way to halt 25 percent of the emissions in the coming years, at the lowest cost."
Gabrielsen added that "we need to include the REDD initiative in the future climate regime" that the Copenhagen meet is to establish and take effect in 2012, when the first period of obligations established in the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change comes to an end.
* IPS correspondent.