Archive for the ‘Deforestation’ Category

The Importance Of Being Pristine – Another IPCC Shortcoming

August 20, 2008

As deforestation accelerates and grows ever more concentrated the consequences on climate change are even greater than previously thought. As reported in New Scientist:

Pristine temperate forest stores three times more carbon than currently estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and 60% more than plantation forests, according to research in Australia.

Yes, the IPCC underestimates yet again. The numbers:

Plugging the data into a computer, the team calculated that trees in areas untouched by logging store on average 640 tonnes of carbon per hectare, compared with an IPCC estimate for temperate forest of 217 tonnes.

The study?

Mackey and colleagues used remote sensing and direct sampling to study eucalyptus trees at 240 sites across a 14.5-million hectare swathe of natural forest in south-east Australia.

The study can be found here.


The global implications are not yet clear. It could be that the carbon-storing ability of other temperate forests, such as those along the Pacific coast of the US, have also been underestimated. Mackey’s team is now investigating this possibility.

One thing is clear: the IPCC desperately needs to update their projections to include data such as this, as well as “slow” feedbacks such as permafrost melt, wetland destruction, actic ice loss and
to name a few. As humanity debates what to do to combat climate change it’s clearer than ever that the climate change beast is still not fully exposed to be the potential cataclysm it is morphing toward.

For the next American administration to make a serious attempt to combat climate change up-to-date consensus climate models will be invaluable. The past year has brought an avalanche of data that is destined to profoundly affect the models.

So while the media remains insistent on hedging what has been with a few exceptions a bad to worse story – Al Gore’s remarks back in January at Davos ring truer than ever: “the climate crisis is significantly worse and unfolding more rapidly than those on the pessimistic side of the IPCC projections had warned us,

As many scientists have anecdotally said: “Things are happening 100 years ahead of schedule”.

Yet, disconcertingly, the IPCC is not scheduled to issue another scenario report until 2013.

Rainforest Destruction – Greater and More Concentrated

July 7, 2008

Deforestation is not only unabated, it’s accelerating around the globe. The problem is growing bigger, yet it is also becoming more concentrated.

Just how concentrated has the problem become? Previously Brazil was thought to account for 27% of worldwide deforestation – per the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Now it is understood to be a whopping 48%.

This news comes from a new study in the 7/8/08 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Matthew Hansen – as reported by Mongabay.

Put another way:

…Brazil accounts for nearly half of global deforestation, nearly four times that of the next highest country, Indonesia, which makes up about an eighth of worldwide forest clearing.

A corollary of sorts being that African deforestation may not be as critical as once thought:

“Africa, although a center of widespread, low-intensity selective logging, contributes only 5.4 percent to the estimated loss of humid tropical forest cover. This result reflects the absence of current agro-industrial scale clearing in humid tropical Africa.”

Interestingly this greater concentration has the benefit of potentially making the problem more manageable.

Matthew Hansen says:

…the geographic concentration of deforestation, coupled with the shift from subsistence-driven to enterprise-deforestation forest clearing, may hold unexpected benefits for conservation: it may be easier for environmental groups to target their campaigns on major forest-destroying corporations and industries.

A sliver of good news to be leveraged for sure.

Previously the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provide the authoritative analysis on deforestation. But its data was largely based on individual countries self-reporting. And the new estimates?

…produced by analysis of a combination of satellite imagery from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Landsat programs. The researchers say the integrated methodology offers a more accurate way to track change in forest cover.

A bit of detail on the newly revealed concentrations:

…55 percent of total tropical humid forest clearing occurs within only 6 percent of the biome area, indicating the existence of deforestation “hotspots,” especially for Brazil and Indonesia where rates of forest loss — 3.6 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively — far exceed regional deforestation rates (1.2 percent for the rest of Latin America, 2.7 percent for the rest of Asia).

Other hotspots revealed:

“Latin American hotspots include northern Guatemala, eastern Bolivia, and eastern Paraguay. As a percentage of year-2000 forest cover, Paraguay features the highest areal proportion of change hotspots, indicating an advanced, nearly complete forest clearing dynamic…”


“…Riau province in Sumatra has the highest indicated change within Indonesia. Hot spots of clearing are present in every state of Malaysia, and clearing in Cambodia along its border with Thailand is among the highest of indicated change hot spots…”

What does the future hold?

“The pattern of deforestation in the humid tropics for the current decade indicates concentrated areas with high rates of deforestation in Latin America and southeast Asia,” study co-author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geography and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, told “With skyrocketing demand for biofuels and agricultural commodities, we can expect that deforestation in the future will be increasingly driven by large-scale industrial agriculture rather than small-scale landholders.”

Deforestation like coal is top-shelf climate villain. And as new coal power plant construction must be stopped so must we also stop rainforest based industrial agriculture.

Let’s capitalize on the sliver of good news. To find out more about what you can do to help, large and small, visit:

Tropical Rainforests: Bad to Worse

July 1, 2008

Pushed from center stage by the expected record arctic ice and permafrost melt, tropical rain forest destruction has been elbowing it’s way back through the smoke and into view.

Papua New Guinea’s rain forests disappearing faster than thought is one such look:

Previously, the article states, the forest loss was estimated at 139,000 hectares per year between 1990 and 2005. But now?

Using satellite images to reveal changes in forest cover between 1972 and 2002…Papua New Guinea (PNG) lost more than 5 million hectares of forest over the past three decades…Worse, deforestation rates may be accelerating, with the pace of forest clearing reaching 362,000 hectares (895,000 acres) per year in 2001. The study warns that at current rates 53 percent of the country’s forests could be lost or seriously degraded by 2021.

That’s an enormous increase.

Adding insult to injury – the good news as reported last Thursday in Malaysia:

PM: No clearing of forests for oil palm plantations

Abdullah, who is also Finance Minister, said the existing oil palm plantations were enough to cater to current demands and there was no need for the opening of new plantations at the moment.

Fast forward THREE DAYS:

Sarawak to open more land for oil palm

Sarawak will continue to open up more land for oil palm plantations, Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud said here yesterday.
He said this would not go against the prime minister’s directive on the clearing of land for oil palm plantation as it did not apply to the state.

Oh well, so much for Malaysia lending a hand.

As so often it seems with the climate change story, the narrative turns from bad to worse and this chapter is no exception, as we turn toward the Amazon.

It’s tough to complete with the destructive capacity of the permafrost melt, but the Amazon is making up for it in it’s willy-nilly approach to climate destruction. This recent article by Rhett Butler at environment 360 sets the scene:

Historically, the Amazon has proven resilient to climate change, human disturbance by pre-Colombian populations, and even periods of fire and extreme drought during millennial El-Niño-like events. Yet the present onslaught of forces affecting the Amazon is unprecedented. Never before has the region experienced the simultaneous impact of large-scale forest loss and degradation, fragmentation, fires, and global warming. Many scientists and conservationists are deeply worried, not only because of the loss of biodiversity that accompanies destruction of the forest, but also because the cutting and torching of this vast repository of carbon will further heat up a planet already warming at an alarming pace.

What are the numbers?

Brazilian satellite data from late 2007 show a marked increase in the number of fires and deforestation in the key soy and cattle-producing states of Pará and Mato Grosso. Both experienced increases in forest loss of 50 percent or more over the same period in 2006, coupled with a large jump in burning — in the case of Mato Grosso, a spike of more than 100 percent. The 123,000 fires detected across the Brazilian Amazon by the Terra and AQUA satellites are the most since such measurements began in 2003. Deforestation in the last five months of 2007 was expected to exceed 7,000 square kilometers, an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island.

Yes, the drivers of ethanol, soy and cattle are well documented, but as is our habit, we tempt much worse:

As demand for biofuels continues to grow, there is a very real possibility that oil palm could become a dominant crop in the Amazon — an ominous development considering that the planting of oil palm plantations has been the driving force behind the recent destruction of huge areas of rain forest in Indonesia and Malaysia. Scientists estimate that Brazil has 2.3 million square kilometers of forest land suitable for oil palm, equal to the forested areas conducive to soy and sugar production combined.

The bottom line doesn’t get much lower:

Writing in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B earlier this year, Daniel Nepstad and colleagues predicted that 55 percent of Amazon forests will be “cleared, logged, damaged by drought, or burned” in the next 20 years if deforestation, forest fires, and climate trends continue apace. The damage will release 15 to 26 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, adding to a feedback cycle that will worsen both warming and forest degradation in the region. Nepstad says this scenario is a conservative one — forest loss and emissions could be far worse.

It’s worth repeating: 15 to 26 billion tons of carbon by 2028 – from the Amazon alone. (That’s the equivalent of 55 to 95 billion tons of CO2.)

Nepstad is saying this is conservative – it could be “far worse”. Will we see the conservative estimate? Or worse? Or far worse realized? (Hint: remember our climate change story – so far, bad to worse.)

But let’s not throw hope under the bus – in the Abstract Dan Nepstad states:

Several important trends could prevent a near-term dieback. As fire-sensitive investments accumulate in the landscape, property holders use less fire and invest more in fire control. Commodity markets are demanding higher environmental performance from farmers and cattle ranchers. Protected areas have been established in the pathway of expanding agricultural frontiers. Finally, emerging carbon market incentives for reductions in deforestation could support these trends.

Putting some numbers to this, Managing Forests for Climate Change Mitigation by Josep Canadell and Michael Raupach in the June 13th issue of Science (sub. req’d) – conveniently referenced in this Mongabay article.

The article summarizes:

Noting that 13 million hectares of forest are felled each year, releasing 1.5 billion tons of carbon, Canadell and Raupach write that reducing deforestation rates by 50 percent by 2050 and stopping deforestation when countries reach 50 percent of their current forested area would avoid emissions equivalent to 50 billion tons of carbon.

Then quoting Canadell and Raupach:

“This ’50:50:50:50′ estimate shows that even with continuing deforestation over the next 40 years, the mitigation potential is large, in addition to protecting the sink capacity of forest for continued removal of atmospheric CO2.”

Yes, the mitigation potential is large but is our inertia larger still?

Amazon left for dead by biofuels?

March 28, 2008

Time Magazine has a very good article “The Clean Energy Scam” by Michael Grunwald, on the terrifying connection between biofuels and the viability of the Amazon (and other tropical forests for that matter).

A Texan sets the tone:

“It gives me goose bumps,” says Carter, who founded a nonprofit to promote sustainable ranching on the Amazon frontier. “It’s like witnessing a rape.”

The perpetrator of this violence? The article answers:

This land rush is being accelerated by an unlikely source: biofuels. An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate.

The Amazon was once protected for it’s biodiversity, but now it’s survival is paramount for one thing: it’s ability to naturally sequester carbon. And the dynamic is explained thusly:

Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.


Worldwide investment in biofuels rose from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2010, thanks to investors like Richard Branson and George Soros, GE and BP, Ford and Shell, Cargill and the Carlyle Group. Renewable fuels has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class.

Just want to add this graph to underline the connection to the power of global commodity markets, which appears to have lifted the Amazon’s destruction to a higher level of magnitude.

More deforestation results from a chain reaction so vast it’s subtle: U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It’s the remorseless economics of commodities markets. “The price of soybeans goes up,” laments Sandro Menezes, a biologist with Conservation International in Brazil, “and the forest comes down.”

Translating into a brutal short-term local logic:

The basic problem is that the Amazon is worth more deforested than it is intact. Carter, who fell in love with the region after marrying a Brazilian and taking over her father’s ranch, says the rate of deforestation closely tracks commodity prices on the Chicago Board of Trade. “It’s just exponential right now because the economics are so good,” he says. “Everything tillable or grazeable is gouged out and cleared.”

Which brings us to the global warming phrase dejour, “tipping point”.

This destructive biofuel dynamic is on vivid display in Brazil, where a Rhode Island–size chunk of the Amazon was deforested in the second half of 2007 and even more was degraded by fire. Some scientists believe fires are now altering the local microclimate and could eventually reduce the Amazon to a savanna or even a desert. “It’s approaching a tipping point,” says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center.

Dan Nepstad is not just any talking head scientist – he’s one of a handful of the world’s top earth scientists specializing in global warming dynamics. His recent report “Interactions among Amazon land use, forests and climate: prospects for a near-term forest tipping point” describes a terrifying razors edge the Amazon finds itself on.

If the Amazon tips, it goes from a massive carbon sink to a massive carbon emitter – quite likely leaving much more than itself for dead.

The take away on biofuels is a very cautionary note:

The lesson behind the math is that on a warming planet, land is an incredibly precious commodity, and every acre used to generate fuel is an acre that can’t be used to generate the food needed to feed us or the carbon storage needed to save us. Searchinger acknowledges that biofuels can be a godsend if they don’t use arable land. Possible feedstocks include municipal trash, agricultural waste, algae and even carbon dioxide, although none of the technologies are yet economical on a large scale. Tilman even holds out hope for fuel crops–he’s been experimenting with Midwestern prairie grasses–as long as they’re grown on “degraded lands” that can no longer support food crops or cattle.