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Trees Stand Tall Against Climate Change

  • Joe DeCapua

Degraded forest landscape in the Offinso District, Ghana. The original high forest cover has been modified through over-exploitation of wood, agriculture and human settlements. (Photo by Ernest Foli, FORNESSA)

Degraded forest landscape in the Offinso District, Ghana. The original high forest cover has been modified through over-exploitation of wood, agriculture and human settlements. (Photo by Ernest Foli, FORNESSA)

The next U.N. Climate Change Conference gets underway November 26 in Doha, Qatar. Once again, negotiators will try to reach a broad agreement on dealing with rising global temperatures. Deforestation is expected to be on the agenda.


The meeting is known as COP 18, or the 18th meeting of the Conference of Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. There are now 195 parties to the treaty, but a definitive agreement on coping with a warming planet has been hard to come by.

In 1997, parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to legally bind developed countries to specific emission reduction targets. The protocol’s original commitment period was supposed to end this year. But last year, negotiators agreed to extend it, possibly by either five or eight years. That’s yet to be decided.

In advance of COP 18, 60 experts with the International Union of Forest Research Organizations have released a new report on reducing carbon emissions. The report says, “The relationships between biodiversity, carbon, forests and people are complex and interdependent.” It adds that “reducing the rates of global deforestation and forest degradation will yield substantial gains for climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation.”

One of the authors is John Parrotta, chair of the Global Forest Expert Panel on Biodiversity, who said keeping forests healthy is vital to mitigating the effects of climate change.

“They can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases contribute to climate change. They can either absorb them – if they’re expanding and growing – or forest areas can be a source of carbon dioxide and exacerbate climate change, if, as we are seeing in many parts of the world, forests are being lost, being cleared or being degraded. So forests actually are a very important piece of the overall climate change picture,” he said.

Parrotta, a senior scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, has tracked the rate of deforestation worldwide.

“The rate of forest decline is actually slowing worldwide, but there’s still a net loss of forests globally. Between 1990 and 2000, forest area was lost at a rate of 8.3 million hectares per year. And over the next 10 years, between 2000 and 2010, forest area loss went down to 5.2 million hectares. It’s still a very, very rapid rate of forest loss worldwide,” he said.

There’s also forest degradation. While this does not mean a loss of forest area, it does mean a loss of quality in forest ecosystems, including soil, vegetation and animal life. This has a direct effect on those whose livelihoods depend on forests.

The U.N. estimates the world population will reach 9 billion by 2050, bringing with it a much greater demand for food. Growing appetites could lead to greater deforestation as more trees are felled to make room for agriculture. The report recommended smarter agricultural practices to bring greater productivity on existing agricultural land.

When the super storm Hurricane Sandy battered the northeastern United States, it renewed debate and interest on the effects of rising global temperatures.

Asked whether it would take a natural disaster regarding forests to raise awareness, the scientist said, “History suggests that might be the case. One hopes you don’t have to wait until you’re at the edge of the cliff to do something. In the case of the scientific community, we’re trying to compile and communicate what we know, and hopefully that will help guide decision-making.”

There is a proposed U.N. mechanism to protect forests and ease climate change. It’s called REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in developing countries. The U.N. says REDD relies on the technical expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Environment Program. One of the goals is to include indigenous peoples and forest-dependent communities in policymaking.

The report said critics of the program warn of a “lack of clarity” regarding funding, as well as possible “environmental and social risks and inequity associated with various aspects of REDD.”

Parrotta said while deforestation has been on the climate change conference agenda, it’s time to act.

“The sooner the better. The sooner the better. As long as the current trends continue with respect to current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and with respect to the extent and condition of forests, the worse it’s going to be to try to reverse these trends,” he said.

He added, “Actions that reduce deforestation and degradation are likely to have the most immediate and greatest benefits for both carbon and biodiversity.”

COP 18, the U.N. Climate Change Conference, will be held in Doha from November 26 to December 7.
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