Emissions From Forest Degradation Just As Bad As From Deforestation


photo: mattmangum via flickr

The full impact of deforestation on global carbon emissions is only now (finally) becoming more widely acknowledged (about 20% of global emissions) and strategies envisioned to stop or at least slow the destruction. However, as a new report from The Nature Conservancy points out, land use changes causing degradation of the carbon storage capacity can not only lead to deforestation, but have a large global warming impact all on its own. The policy brief Don't Forget the Second D spells out why this is:The 'second D' they're referring to is in the acronym REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), financial programs designed to reduce deforestation, generally by payments to keep forests standing as carbon sinks. In some cases can result in as great an impact as full deforestation.

What's the Difference Between Forest Degradation and Deforestation?
According the IPCC and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, an area is still considered forest up until the point that it has less than 10% of its crown cover remaining. In other words, you can chop down a whole heck of a lot of forest before the area is considering deforested. That's where degradation comes in: Anything that reduces the carbon storage capacity of that forest up to the point of reducing the crown cover below 10% is forest degradation.

The point in this is that if degradation is not adequately accounted for in REDD mechanisms, a potentially large source of carbon emissions is being omitted.


image: The Nature Conservancy
What Are the Main Causes of Forest Degradation?
Broadly, there are three main sources of forest degradation, as outlined in the policy brief: Timber harvesting -- commercial logging is a pretty obvious threat, though the collateral damage caused by removing trees to the surrounding terrain is probably less so; Fire -- some fires are good, preventing large-scale fires and actually increasing the carbon storage potential of the forest; others, often used to clear land for agriculture, aren't so good (though replacing this with plantation agriculture really isn't great either); Gathering Fuelwood -- two major sources: collection by individuals for local use and commercial collection for use in urban areas directly or as charcoal.

How Bad is Forest Degradation in Total?
Here are some of the relevant stats:

1) Selective logging in the tropics accounts for about 30% of the total emissions lumped up in deforestation, or about 6% of the global total.

2) During El Niño years in Brazil understory fires account for 10-45% of total forest carbon emissions. In Borneo, during the 1990s when large areas of the island were burned, Friends of the Earth estimated that carbon emissions equal to 50% of the UK's total emissions resulted.

3) Collection of fuelwood is estimated to account for about 40% of global removals from forests.

What Can We Do About It?
The Nature Conservancy recommends five strategies to combat forest degradation:

1) Reduced Impact Logging -- Basically, it's what it sounds like: Being more selective and careful in how trees are felled so as to minimize damage to surrounding areas. They cite a RIL operation in Malaysia that resulted in 43% lower emissions than conventional logging operations.

2) Forest Certification -- TreeHugger has covered the efforts of organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council on a number of occasions. Basically, you reduce harvest levels to what is sustainable within a particular forest, leaving more trees on site; you ensure land tenure for land use rights for people living in the forest and engage local communities in decision-making, thereby reducing the potential for conflict; and, reduce carbon emissions though better management, training, and forest monitoring.

3) Integrated Fire Management -- Remember when I said that some fires are good for forests? This is part of that. Integrated Fire Management basically maintains natural fire regimes in areas where this occurs naturally so as to prevent catastrophic fires, and in fire-sensitive ecosystems preventing understory fires.

4) Improved Forest Governance -- This is perhaps the toughest of all of them. A lack of effective governance, combined with weak or non-existent land rights and lack of community engagement continues to lead to poor forest management and accelerating forest degradation and deforestation throughout the tropics.

5) Fuelwood Management -- An entire serious of sub-strategies are applicable: Creating more diverse ecosystems through agro-forestry; afforestation and reforestation on lands already degraded; windbreaks and windrows can protect crops from damage while supplying a sustainable source of firewood; replacing inefficient wood burning cookstoves with more efficient models or (perhaps more importantly) replacing them with ones running on methane produced locally from agricultural waste.


photo: Karanakar Rayker via flickr
Don't Frack With Forests!
If that all seems like a lot to do, it's because it is. But both deforestation and forest degradation equally must be addressed as part of an effective climate change regime.

We've gotten it into our collective head that we can't continue to burn fossil fuels willy-nilly and need green alternatives--even if the full impact of this (goodbye happy motoring culture! and good riddance) and the speed at which this transition needs to happen isn't too often acknowledged.

We've also begun to realize the impact that personal dietary choices play in reducing carbon emissions, in terms of understanding food miles, the positive effect of organic agriculture in lowering the carbon intensity of food production, and the great impact that eliminating or at least reducing meat consumption can have.

However, preserving forests throughout the world (though much of the focus is on tropical deforestation, forests are pretty much a universally good thing) really needs to rise to the top of our collective consciousness, in terms of climate change impact.

Woman collecting firewood image: Magnus Franklin via flickr.
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Tags: Carbon Emissions | Conservation | Deforestation | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Causes