World's "lungs" wheezing: Forest protection key at climate summit

7th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

The offer that Guyana's president presented to Britain during the UN climate conference on Bali was almost irresistible: a rainforest the size of England.

7 December 2007

Bali Island, Indonesia (dpa) - The offer that Guyana's president presented to Britain during the UN climate conference on Bali was almost irresistible: a rainforest the size of England.

Guyana, a heavily forested South American nation, promised to maintain the forest and not to fell any trees in return for development aid from its former colonial power.

It was in fact a proposal that, if accepted, would make Britain carbon dioxide emissions-free, at least statistically, as the offered rainforest area absorbs as much carbon dioxide as Britain produces.

Rainforest nations are serious about such proposals. They are demanding that the protection of their forests, which act as enormous carbon filters and help regulate the global climate, be incorporated into an upcoming climate protection treaty and ought to be financially rewarded.

"We are not looking for handouts. This is a business deal," Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo said in a recent BBC interview with regards to his country's proposal.

Rainforests comprise only about 7 percent of the Earth's landmass, but they are considered the world's "lungs," emitting oxygen and absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming if it is released into the atmosphere.

The forests girdle the earth like a huge belt on both sides of the equator from South America to central Africa and South-East Asia and are the habitat of almost half the world's animal and plant species.

In Guyana, as in many rainforest-rich countries, the pressure to commercially exploit the country's 20 million hectares of trees is increasing.

The logs are valuable and, apart from that, considerable gold deposits are thought to hide underneath Guyana's dense forest cover.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, an increasing number of cattle ranchers and farmers are felling trees to establish new pastures and fields.

Indonesia, on the other hand, fells its rainforest primarily to make way for vast palm oil plantations with the bio-diesel boom in Europe accelerating the destruction because of a controversial EU directive that bio-diesel has to contain at least 10 percent of "agro-fuels" by the year 2020.

"Forest protection is still the most effective and cheapest way to protect the climate while demanding a minimum percentage of agro-fuels in diesel only exacerbates forest destruction," the German environmental organization Save the Rainforests said.

"We estimate that around 14 million hectares are cleared worldwide every year," Celia Harvey of Conservation International, another non-governmental organization, told the UN conference being held in Nusa Dua on Bali.

The consequences were indicated Thursday in a report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). It said climate change and deforestation were feeding on themselves, creating a vicious circle that would wipe out or severely damage nearly 60 percent of the Amazon, home to more than half the world's rainforest, by 2030.

The WWF warned not only of dramatic consequences for the Amazon and the livelihoods of people in South America but also for the world's climate. With further destruction of the Amazon forests, less rainfall was anticipated in India, Central America and during the growing season in the grain belts of the United States and Brazil, its researchers said.

The carbon dioxide that trees have absorbed is released into the atmosphere when they are cut down and accounts for about 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emission - in other words, as much as the United States as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter produces and more than all of the world's auto and airplane emissions combined.

If greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation would be included in the world's overall emissions output, Brazil and Indonesia would be among the top four greenhouse gas producers.

Further forest destruction can only be stopped by offering compensation payments to countries that protect their remaining forests, environmental activists said.

"The money would have to firstly cover land surveys, secondly the income loss from being unable to commercially exploit those areas and, thirdly, forest management, including the deployment of fences and guards to keep out illegal loggers," Harvey said, adding that to figure out appropriate compensation was complicated.

Furthermore, Brazil, which has the largest continuous rainforest areas on Earth, is wary that someone would dictate how this natural resource is to be used.

In countries of Africa's Congo basin, on the other hand, there are no responsible partners that could guarantee effective forest protection as it suffers spates of civil wars and ensuing power vacuums.

Provincial authorities in the vast island archipelago of Indonesia ignore logging bans by the central government when they are approached with enough tea money from companies seeking a logging license or a permit to erect a plantation.

"We need a lot of capacity building, and it has to be made clear that this [compensation] money is not paid for nothing," Harvey said. "There are obligations."

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