Death by 1,000 Cuts: Why the Forest Carbon Sink Is Disappearing

GR:  While we’re on the subject, here’s more evidence that deforestation is not stopping anytime soon. The research reported below found that 69% of deforestation came from small-scale projects.

“The clear-cutting of giant swathes from the globe’s tropical forests has long been understood to be a major force behind global warming, but new research finds that smaller-scale forest loss—from minor logging and fires—is an even more powerful driver of climate change.

“On Thursday, scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University published a study in the journal Science that says the planet’s tropical forests are releasing more carbon dioxide than they can store, mostly due to “fine scale” degradation and disturbance that previous studies haven’t captured.

“The finding means tropical forests may not act as carbon “sinks” unless both deforestation writ large and this more subtle degradation is stopped or slowed.

“The researchers looked at tropical forests across Asia, Africa and Latin America using a trio of tools—remote sensing, field observations and satellite imagery—that gave them a more comprehensive and detailed picture over a period of eleven years, from 2003 to 2014.

“This approach allowed them to measure not just large-scale deforestation, largely from agriculture, but smaller-scale degradation and disturbances that have, until now, been especially difficult to gauge.

“Collectively, these fine-scale losses have been very difficult to quantify,” said Wayne Walker, an associate scientist at Woods Hole and one of the report’s authors. “While they don’t seem like much in any given place, when you add them up across an areas as big as the tropics, they can be huge.” –Georgina Gustin (Death by 1,000 Cuts: Why the Forest Carbon Sink Is Disappearing | InsideClimate News).

Degraded Tropical Forests Now Release More Carbon Than They Store

GR: Brazil and other tropical nations are still allowing companies to cut and burn their forests for wood, pasture, and cropland. Deforestation is also occurring outside the tropics. The U. S. Forest Service, for instance, still permits forest clear cutting a century after the U. S. Forest Service was created to prevent clear cutting. And of course, the “wake-up call” sounded by the research is late and is unlikely to be heeded. The lungs of the Earth are shriveling up and it is the short-sighted nature of humans to permit this in return for a share of the profits (more on this story here: Washington PostReutersThe GuardianPBS NewsHour).

Forest thinning in Bolivia. Wayne Walker

“Tropical forests may no longer be acting as carbon sinks and could be releasing more carbon than they store, according to troubling new research.

“A study published Thursday in the journal Science finds that forests across Asia, Latin America and Africa release 425 metric tons of carbon per year, which is equal to nearly one-tenth of the U.S.’ annual carbon footprint.

“Researchers found nearly 70 percent of this loss is caused by small-scale degradation, the result of selective logging, drought and wildfire. All is not lost for forests, however. Researchers say that policies to curb deforestation, reduce degradation and restore land could turn forests back into carbon sinks.

“These findings provide the world with a wakeup call on forests,” the study’s lead author, Alessandro Baccini, a scientist with the U.S.-based Woods Hole Research Center, said in a statement.

“If we’re to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels, we need to drastically reduce emissions and greatly increase forests’ ability to absorb and store carbon.” –Climate Nexus (Degraded Tropical Forests Now Release More Carbon Than They Store, New Study Finds.)

Human Mistakes: Deforestation

Forests

Forests are long-lived communities of trees, shrubs, herbs, and wildlife. The communities form over centuries as birds and winds deliver seeds and spores to sites with sufficient moisture for big plants to grow. Across regions occupied by forests, the combined influence of annual precipitation and temperature usually varies from dry with small scattered trees to wet with dense forest with interlocked canopies.

Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee (Country Living)

As forests develop, soils form and a diverse assemblage of arthropods, amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles gathers to fill habitats from the ground up to the canopy. The animals interact with the plants, pollinating flowers, scattering seeds, and forming many novel alliances.

Forests and the litter that accumulates on the ground transform environments. They moderate temperature and they absorb and hold moisture from precipitation. They protect the land from extreme heat and flooding. Forests are much finer places to live than the bare rock and dirt upon which they form.

Landslide in Nepal (Navesh Chitrakar Reuters/Landov)

Forests exist in a dynamic equilibrium with the forces of nature. Across a forest, natural events, fires, windstorms, floods, droughts, and late freezes, are often annual occurrences. These create a mosaic of forest of varying age. In tropical regions with stable climate, forests are older and more uniform in age than they are in temperate regions with variable climate.

Harvesting the Earth: Deforestation

Over the past few millennia, humans have accelerated forest dynamics. We have cut and burned to destroy patches of forest at a higher rate than natural forces ever did. We are doing these things so often, the forests do not have time to recover. And in many instances, we create and maintain crops and plantations that insure the forests will never recover.

Loggers, ranchers, and farmers cut forests for lumber, and cut or burn forests for livestock pastures, plantations, and farms. In the U. S., the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and state forestry departments help timber companies maximize their profits by permitting clear cutting, and by building roads and erosion barriers. With the loss of trees and disturbance of the soil, flooding and erosion often increase. Habitat and wildlife are always lost.

Clearcut forest in Oregon.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than half of all animals on Earth have disappeared during the past 50 years (WWF 2016). Deforestation and other human activities are responsible.

Government agencies build roads to ease removal of the forests, and they pay ranchers to build fences and stock watering ponds. Sometimes they attempt to mitigate the harmful effects of tree removal by cutting terraces into the soil to slow runoff and by planting replacement trees. In few or no instances do the agencies give the planted trees enough time to regenerate the original forest before they are cut again.

Global Deforestation

A peatland forest clearing for a palm oil plantation in the Leuser ecosystem, South Aceh, Indonesia. Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Deforestation is ongoing around the world as cutting and burning convert forests to pastures, farms, and plantations. For example, Arthur Neslen of the Guardian reports, “Europe’s contribution to global deforestation may rise by more than a quarter by 2030, despite a pledge to halt such practices by the end of this decade, according to a leaked draft EU analysis.

“An estimated 13m hectares (Mha) of the world’s forestland is lost each year, a figure projected to spiral in the next 30 years with the AmazonGreater Mekongand Borneo bearing the brunt of tree clearances.

“But despite signing several international pledges to end deforestation by this decade’s end, more than 5Mha of extra forest land will be needed annually by 2030 to meet EU demand for agricultural products, a draft EU feasibility study predicts.” –Arthur Neslen (Source: Europe’s contribution to deforestation set to rise despite pledge to halt it | Environment | The Guardian)

Justifying Deforestation

People sometimes justify removing the forest as the unavoidable costs of human progress toward a better life of increased comfort and security. In most instances today, however, for-profit companies remove forests with little concern for people’s lives or the consequences for soils and wildlife.

The counter argument that the forest, every tree, and all the animals of the forest have value independent of humans is rarely heard. Here’s how Judi Bari put it:

“Deep ecology, or biocentrism, is the belief that nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are part of nature, one species among many. All species have a right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans. And biodiversity is a value in itself, essential for the flourishing of both human and nonhuman life.

“These principles, I believe, are not just another political theory. Biocentrism is a law of nature, that exists independently of whether humans recognize it or not. It doesn’t matter whether we view the world in a human centered way. Nature still operates in a biocentric way. And the failure of modern society to acknowledge this – as we attempt to subordinate all of nature to human use – has led us to the brink of collapse of the earth’s life support systems.” –Judi Bari (Revolutionary Ecology)

Humans have cut and burned forests for thousands of years. The delightfully moderate environments created by forests, the opposite of urban heat islands or the monotony of farms, are disappearing. In our own special way, we are fouling our nest, but unlike the birds, we are not cleaning up after ourselves.


You can expand on this rambling introduction to deforestation by reading more posts on this blog or by reading many of the fine books available on Amazon.

Previous Posts (84) in this blog describe events and consequences for sites around the world.

 

Brazil following US in rolling back climate protections

GR: It is not good to see Trump’s Paris retreat mentioned in stories of other countries rolling back their climate commitments. It is especially disappointing to see Brazil making so many backward moves. Politics, greed, and corruption are once again attacking the Amazon. Anteaters, Capybaras, Parrots, and all the rest are losing their homes.

“Brazil is considering measures that would roll back environmental protections and make it difficult to meet its Paris climate accord targets.

“The move would see the country step back from its global leadership on climate change just as the United States is also retreating.

“Congress has already passed two measures that will dramatically reduce the size of protected environmental reserves. Lawmakers are also considering substantially relaxing environmental licensing rules for infrastructure, agricultural and industrial projects. A proposal that would change how indigenous lands are designated, potentially reducing their size and protection, is also on the table.

“This comes at a time when the Amazon and Atlantic rain forests are being cut at the fastest rate in nearly a decade, and the violent struggle for control of forested land is on the rise. “Brazil is throwing aside the opportunity to be a leader on these questions,” said Marcio Astrini, co-ordinator of public policy for Greenpeace in Brazil. “It’s very hard for someone to manage to be worse than (US President Donald) Trump on the environment, but the Brazilian government is working very hard” to do that, he added.

“Brazil was long seen as a global leader on environmental issues. As the major steward of the Amazon rain forest, its policies have a tremendous effect on global rates of carbon emissions reduction. In conjunction with Mr Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement, Brazil’s move away from environmental regulation could jeopardise global goals. The moves come amid political turmoil in Latin America’s largest nation. President Michel Temer is struggling to stay in office amid corruption allegations and threats of impeachment or removal by an electoral court. Amid the turmoil, he is trying to pass unpopular reforms he says are essential to helping Brazil’s economy shrug off a two-year recession.

“Mr Temer has agreed to back a series of measures promoted by Congress’ so-called “rural caucus” – a group of lawmakers representing the interests of rural landowners, including agribusiness and ranchers – in exchange for help passing his own agenda, and hopefully avoiding impeachment.

“This government is using the environmental agenda as currency,” Mr Astrini said.

“In April, a week-long protest outside Congress by indigenous groups who say Mr Temer is reducing protections on their lands and allowing land-grabs by farmers and ranchers illustrated the debate. When police fired tear gas at the protesters, they responded with spears and arrows.

“Last month, Congress passed two measures that convert around 1.4 million acres of protected land, the vast majority of it in the Amazon, into areas open to logging, mining and agricultural use.” –AP (Brazil considers following US in rolling back climate protections | BreakingNews.ie).