November 22, 2011
Forest conservation can help mitigate the effects of climate change and facilitate adaptation to new climatic conditions. It plays a particularly important role for the water balance. The clearing and overexploitation of “old” woodland leads to accelerated desertification and exacerbated flooding. International climate negotiations aim to foster the protection and sustainable use of forests.
“Climate change expresses itself as water through droughts and floods”.
Elias Freig, Manager of carbon finance and climate change, Mexico Commission on Water; on the occasion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, June 16, 2011.
The clearing of woodland releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, which exacerbates climate change. These emissions account for nearly 20% of the global total. Compounding the problem, an area such as the Amazon rainforest produces its own rain. If too much woodland is cleared, local water cycles are thrown out of balance. There is concern among experts that large-scale deforestation could gradually turn the eastern part of Amazonia into savanna.
As forests have the capacity to absorb water, rapid runoff of rainwater is prevented. Also, roots keep the soil in place. If this is hampered by timber lumbering or the burning of forest, floods as seen in Pakistan, Australia and Thailand are increasingly likely to occur and/or have catastrophic consequences. On top of that, forests help clean the water, which is particularly important in the catchment area of drinking water reservoirs.
Now one might think these negative processes could be stopped by reforestation per se. But that is not automatically the case. Studies have shown that reforested land requires considerable amounts of water especially in the first few decades which means that, for instance, rivers in the vicinity may see their water levels drop or even dry up completely. Eucalyptus plantations and other rapidly growing trees for timber production, in particular, can make local water shortages worse by using up large volumes. Hence, plantation farming only makes sense in regions with sufficient precipitation.
In China, large-scale timber harvesting – along with other forms of overexploitation – has led to desertification of nearly 120,000 square kilometres, i.e. an area bigger than Portugal. There have also been dramatic floods. For a number of years now the country has carried out intensive reforestation measures. Nonetheless, there are concerns that the original protection capacity of the natural forests cannot be reproduced, as unsuitable tree species as well as too few species have been planted. This example demonstrates that greater significance should be attached to the conservation of natural “old” forest.
In this context, emissions trading may play a decisive part. The REDD+ programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) planned by the UN is designed to avoid woodland clearance by enabling emissions certificates to be generated through forest conservation. Sustainable use of the forests concerned, ideally also of non-timber products, can continue to take place nonetheless. For one thing, this creates an incentive to protect forests and/or use woodlands in a sustainable fashion. For another, the local population does not lose this source of income. If commercial use of the forests in question were to be prohibited altogether, this conservation measure could increase pressure in other areas. In some places, forests are already being used traditionally to produce non-timber products such as fruit, nuts or latex. In many cases, forest products can be marketed profitably. Support from smallholders and more sustainable land use by large farms can also help ease the pressure on the last remaining primeval forests.
To be sure, many open issues in the framework of the REDD+ programme have yet to be resolved. For example, the definition of "forest" must be clarified. Abuse of this instrument, e.g. by replacing natural forests with plantations, should be avoided at any cost as forest conservation must be given the highest priority. Only then can a positive contribution be made to protecting the climate, maintaining biodiversity and stabilising local and global water cycles. International climate negotiations, for instance at the upcoming climate conference in Durban, should therefore aim via the REDD+ mechanism to create an institutional framework for forest conservation.
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