in Brazil

Tropical forests are a carbon source not a sink. What does this mean for REDD?

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Tropical forests release more carbon each year than all the traffic in the United States. That’s the alarming finding of a recent study published in Science. The report demonstrates the urgent need to protect tropical forests. It also demonstrates the complete insanity of trading the carbon stored against continued emissions from fossil fuels.

The lead author of the study, Alessandro Baccini of the Woods Hole Research Center, told the Guardian that,

“This shows that we can’t just sit back. The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing. As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more.”

The team of scientists behind the study used satellite images from 2003 to 2014, combined with field measurements. They found that degradation and disturbance of forests accounted for 68% of the carbon release from forests.

Well over half the forest carbon losses are from Latin America

Latin America accounted by 60% of the carbon losses, Africa for 24%, and Asia for 16%. Now this is odd, because the Norwegian government is pretty sure that it’s involved in a success story in Brazil. “Brazil’s results in the form of reduced deforestation 2005-2014 is one of the biggest climate measures ever,” the Norwegian government’s website states.

Let’s compare that to the results of the study in Science:

In the case of Brazil, for which the body of research on forest loss trends is most extensive, decreasing losses in carbon density early in the time series reflect a documented deceleration in deforestation from 2004-2012 due to retractions in soy and cattle production, increases in monitoring and enforcement together with fines and embargos on illegal deforestation, and the creation of new protected areas. Increases in forest loss thereafter, increasingly attributable to forest degradation, are responsible for the upward trend in carbon density loss late in the time series.

The scientists found that degradation and disturbance accounts for 70% of carbon losses in Latin America. (The figures for Africa and Asia are 81% and 46% respectively.)

REDD to the rescue? Really?

Despite the fact that their study clearly shows that REDD has utterly failed to stop emissions from tropical forests, the scientists conclude their study with the following pro-REDD comment:

The fact that we observe tropical forests to be a net carbon source emphasizes the potential role of forests in stabilizing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Ending tropical deforestation and forest degradation would reduce emissions by at least 862 Tg C yr –1 , thus providing a bridge to a low fossil fuel future

Another author of the study, Wayne Walker, of the Woods Hole Research Center, told the Guardian that,

“We need to be positive. Let’s turn tropical forests back into a sink. We need to restore degraded areas. As far as technology for reducing carbon is concerned, this is low-hanging fruit. We know how to protect and sustain forests. It’s relatively cost effective.”

In the early enthusiasm for REDD, proponents often described REDD as being “low-hanging fruit” and “cost effective”. But in 2010, a Swedish Society for Nature Conservation report concluded, “It is important to rapidly reduce deforestation, but naïve and dangerous to think that it will be quick or easy.”

Walker’s comment is an echo of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change which stated that,

“Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has the potential to offer significant reductions fairly quickly.”

In 2012, REDD-Monitor sent Nicholas Stern some questions, asking whether he stood by his earlier optimism about REDD, given the difficulties that REDD had run into, and the collapse of the carbon markets that were supposed to finance REDD. Stern did not reply.

The Amazon tipping point

The reality is that the Amazon is at a tipping point.

Sue Branford and Mauricio Torres have written a series of excellent articles about the state of the Brazil’s forests on Mongabay. If you’ve not been reading them, you should.

Their most recent article describes the fires this year in Brazil. And it’s terrifying. Up to 5 October 2017, there have been 208,278 fires this year. The record number of fires in Brazil was in 2004, with a total of 270,295. This year looks like beating that record.

In September 2017 there were 110,736 fires. More than in any previous month in the 20 years that Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has been recording fires. Alberto Setzer, who runs INPE’s fire monitoring department, told Mongabay that almost all of these fires were human-caused.

Branford and Torres write that,

The fact that there has been a record number of fires this year doesn’t necessarily mean that there has been an increase in the area deforested. Instead, fires are often the result of a different phenomenon: forest degradation, which occurs when loggers move in to extract hard timber.

Loggers only fell valuable trees they’re harvesting and those in the way. But what they leave behind under the forest canopy are heaps of dead limbs and debris — dry, flammable slash. However, that degraded understory left by loggers rarely appears in official deforestation figures, which only report on clear cuts, defined as deforested areas over 62,000 square meters (15 acres).

A vicious circle: Climate change, drought, fire

The fires are related to the prolonged drought that has affected the Amazon this year. Droughts in the Amazon are becoming more common, with severe droughts occurring in 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2015/2016.

This is a vicious circle: Continued greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are driving climate change, making Amazon droughts worse. The droughts make the forest more susceptible to fires. Meanwhile logging, mining, road-building, and other infrastructure degrades the forest and leaves it more vulnerable to fires. The fires release vast amounts of carbon, thus exacerbating climate change.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels. The best way of doing that is by leaving them underground. And we need to reduce deforestation and forest degradation.

As REDD-Monitor has pointed out, over and over and over and over again, we cannot afford to trade the carbon stored in forests against continued emissions of fossil fuels. We have to massively reduce emissions from both.

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  1. Thanks very much Chris! This summary of a scientific finding is very inspiring to change our way of thinking and attitude toward Climate Change or REDD and REDD+ projects in Indonesia. I consulted with a group of conservation activists over the last two months about the future or carbon sink, carbon stock, REDD+ etc., when we discussed about forest and biodiversity conservation in Kalimantan. No single REDD project is neither surviving nor sustaining… too much discussion, research, road-maps, master-plans, rules and regulation, policy discussions …at least, since I join in the discussions on REDD since early 2000-s. I had some comments in early 2000-s when I said to some scientists that the more we conduct research and publish more papers the more the forests are degraded or destroyed.. it happens clearly and significantly until now. I rarely see significant conservation projects in Sumatera or Kalimantan successfully protect the tropical forest or at least prevent deforestation, forest degradation or destruction….. the threats and pressures to forest and its biodiversity are significantly increased. I would love to see if somebody can tell me any success story of REDD projecta in Indonesia….. so sorry.