There is growing scientific evidence that to avoid a climate catastrophe in the coming decades we need not just to reduce carbon emissions, but, beyond that, to reduce actual concentrations of CO2 already present in the earth’s atmosphere. This is an agenda that goes significantly beyond the targets currently being pursued by the world’s ‘climate guardians’ such as the IPCC.
Jim Hansen, the eminent climate researcher and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has recently stated that the IPCC has been much too cautious in its assessments and that we are rapidly reaching crucial tipping points which compel us to act very rapidly indeed to prevent runaway climate change. In an interview published in 2008, he said this:
“Recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change. . . . There is already enough carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere for massive ice sheets such as West Antarctica to eventually melt away, and ensure that sea levels will rise metres in coming decades. Climate zones such as the tropics and temperate regions will continue to shift, and the oceans will become more acidic, endangering much marine life. We must begin to move rapidly to the post-fossil-fuel clean energy system. Moreover, we must remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.” 1
Hansen’s views have been reinforced by alarming news about melting mountain glaciers and by the unprecedented thinning of polar ice, with the prospect that summer ice in the Arctic may largely disappear in a matter
of years. Far more solar energy will be absorbed into the arctic oceans as their colour turns from white to dark as ice dissolves during the summer months. This and other positive feedbacks are alarm signals of an unprecedented crisis that have led the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon to refer to a global climate emergency.
So, where do we go from here? By 2009 global carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations have already reached 387 parts per million (ppm), up by 40 percent from 275 ppm in 1900. Until recently a doubling to 550 ppm was widely regarded as an acceptable target, but this has been revised downwards to some 450 ppm as new scientific evidence about a warming planet has emerged. Now a growing number of climatologists are questioning even this limited increase, and argue for an actual reduction of CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm or below. This goes way beyond scenarios currently being proposed by governments in developed countries, whose policies are homing in on an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions from 1990 figures by 2050.
The problem is that every year we are now discharging nearly 10 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Of this, four to five billion tonnes are not being reabsorbed into the world’s ecosystems, but are instead accumulating in the atmosphere above our heads. This chapter aims to explore options for absorbing surplus greenhouse gas emissions, and, beyond that, to find ways to actually reduce existing GHG concentrations.
The last chapter ended by looking at the potential for removing carbon by technical means through carbon capture and storage (geo-sequestration). Yet even if CCS were to succeed, it will not deal with existing carbon that is already in the atmosphere. This chapter discusses alternative approaches, and particularly bio-sequestration, which can deal with new emissions as well as existing CO2 concentrations if done on a large-enough scale.
For global temperatures to stabilize, carbon emissions must ultimately not exceed what can be absorbed by the biosphere, the Earth’s vegetation, soils and oceans. So can we enhance the capacity of the biosphere to absorb CO2?
There is no question that this is a controversial issue, particularly regarding the idea of using reforestation for carbon sequestration. For instance, in a joint statement in 2006, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF-UK strongly argued against ‘reforestation sink projects’, mainly because “large-scale monoculture tree plantations often have negative impacts on the environment and forest communities”. 2
A number of other publications detail the perceived fallacy of carbon offsets. A report called The Carbon Neutral Myth – Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins rails against the idea of people in the rich countries obtaining ‘permission’ to burn oil, gas and coal by paying for carbon offsets – more often than not through tree-planting projects somewhere in the global South where projects are being imposed on communities with little consultation.’ 3
These objections certainly have to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the need to find ways of enhancing the capacity of the earth’s living environment to absorb carbon. Not
only can this help to reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations – a critical necessity – but, if done right, it can also increase the options for sustainable food and timber production for a growing global population. In a world challenged by climate change and biodiversity loss as well as hunger, it is critically important to undertake new initiatives which can have such multiple benefits.
A key point to be considered is that whilst fossil-fuel burning has massively increased in the last 300 years, the capacity of the biosphere to absorb it has been significantly reduced at the same time. Dr. Rattan Lal, Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University, has calculated that 476 billions of tonnes (Gt) of carbon has been emitted from farmland soils due to inappropriate farming and grazing practices, compared with 270 Gt emitted from over 150 years of burning of fossil fuels.4 A more frequently quoted figure is that 200-250 Gt of carbon has been lost from the biosphere as a whole in the last 300 years.5 Whatever the correct figure, these reductions of ‘living carbon potential’ have resulted from:
accelerated soil erosion
loss of soil organic matter
salinization of soils
costal water pollution, and
acidification of the oceans
The main argument of this chapter is that carbon dioxide should be regarded not simply as a ‘bad’ that has to be stored in underground caverns out of harm’s way, but that it can be turned into a good that can be used to enhance the wellbeing of the biosphere and humanity. Can the disruptive human impact on nature’s carbon cycle, which is causing ever-worsening instabilities, be brought back into balance by deliberate action?
A matter of balance
A healthy balance sheet matches income and outgoings – in fact, on the balance sheet of a thriving company or household, income exceeds outgoings. But it is not so in the world’s global carbon balance sheet: year after year we have been running up ever-greater deficits. For instance, WWF’s annual Living Planet Reports indicate clearly that in our dealings with nature we have been creating ever-greater imbalances. The 2008 Living Planet Report tells us that we are consuming the resources that underpin the world’s ecosystems services much faster than they are being replenished. Humanity’s global ecological footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent.6 Indisputably, this state of affairs cannot continue.
The main constituent of life on earth is carbon, drawn from carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. It is the chemical basis of all known life, and forms more compounds than any other element, with some ten million so far identified by science. Variations in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been known for some time to influence the impact of solar radiation on the earth, and with that, the earth’s climate. Around 2,000 Gt of carbon are present in the world’s soils and vegetation, and this has been fairly constant over the last few million years. The earth’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves amount to approximately 1,200 Gt, or 1.2 trillion tonnes. Around 900 Gt of these are coal, and the remaining oil and gas reserves each amount to around 150 Gt. 7
Over the course of some 300 million years, carbon was drawn down from the atmosphere by living organisms and ‘relocated’ in the earth’s crust, ultimately becoming fossil fuels. These were formed out of biomass that was deposited on the ocean floor by sea organisms, by organic particles that were washed into the sea, and out of plant and animal matter on land which was then covered over by sediments and more decaying organic matter.
In the last 300 years we have reversed this process of biological carbon sequestration, and have transferred hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon back into the atmosphere, with increasingly dire consequences. How can we balance the books? How can humanity re-establish a carbon cycle where income and outgoings are matched?
This matter is addressed in some detail by the IPCC reports published in recent years, and some mitigation measures have been agreed by the international community in the Kyoto Protocol. However, new thinking about how large amounts of carbon already present in the atmosphere can be sequestered is now urgently needed.
According to the Global Carbon Project, the land and ocean carbon sinks – such as forests, and plankton in the ocean – removed about 54 percent, or 4.8 billion tonnes a year, of the carbon that humans discharged into the atmosphere between 2000 and 2007. That leaves a carbon surplus of about 4 billion tonnes or so per year, which we need to find ways to reduce or absorb.8
We must take a new look at how better land-use and forest management can further enhance biological carbon sequestration. There has been much discussion about the feasibility of geo-sequestration of CO2 from power stations, refineries, etc., as discussed in the last chapter. However, in this chapter we argue that we should give priority to biological
carbon capture and storage (BCCS), or bio-sequestration, through deliberate measures of forest protection, reforestation, the improvement of soil by incorporation of compost and ‘biochar’, and by restoring ocean vegetation. The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), as discussed in some detail in Chapter 4, should be expanded to incorporate bio-sequestration in all its various forms.
In this context it is important to realize that well-thought-out bio-sequestration has multiple benefits to nature and human society: in addition to absorbing surplus carbon, it also offers significant opportunities for biodiversity protection, soil erosion prevention and, potentially, enhanced food production and poverty reduction in rural areas. This could even help to enhance the economic viability of rural communities in an age in which billions of people have been and are being forced to move to cities to try and earn a better living.
Forests for life
Global forest cover extends to nearly 4 billion hectares, or 30 percent of the world’s land surface.9 The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recently done a Forest Resources Assessment which states that the world’s forests contain 638 Gt of carbon – which is more than the total carbon contained in the atmosphere.10
Forest ecosystems are crucially important components of the global carbon cycle in several ways. They remove some 3 billion tonnes of carbon every year through net growth, absorbing nearly 30 percent of all C02 emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation.11
Healthy forests play a crucial role as global ecological life-support systems. Reports such as UNEP’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment make it clear that the goods and services provided by forests are worth trillions of dollars to the global economy. In addition to carbon sequestration, they provide a wide range of ‘ecosystem services’ of benefit to all life: they are wildlife habitats, biodiversity centres, climate regulators and watershed protectors – not to mention medicine cabinets and cosmetics counters. By and large these services are regarded as free benefits – of no cost to human society – and they are absent from society’s balance sheet. Thus their critical contributions to the viability of life on earth are largely overlooked in decision-making. This problem needs to be urgently addressed, for only if we recognize forests as important natural assets with economic and social value can we do what is necessary to promote their protection.12
As human populations and their economies grow, so do the resource demands imposed on ecosystems and the impacts of our global ecological footprint. But society is coming to realize that as ecosystem services are threatened across the world, there is an urgent need to evaluate both their immediate and their long-term benefits to humanity. Increasingly, researchers have been able to quantify the economic value associated with ecosystem services based on assessing the cost of replacing these with ‘man-made’ alternatives.13
Deforestation, a global problem
Deforestation, particularly in the tropics, has long been regarded as a major environmental problem. It is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and one of the primary contributors to climate change. The IPCC estimates that it is responsible for 18 to
20 percent of global carbon emissions. Deforestation today is concentrated in a few developing countries, primarily in the tropics, but countries all over the world will ultimately benefit from forest protection. So new international forest conservation efforts are urgently needed.
According to the FAO, between 2000 and 2005 the global annual net loss of forest area was 7.3 million hectares per year, mainly in
the tropics.14 This represents a loss of CO2 sequestration capacity of 3.65 billion tonnes.15 As well as being a major threat to the climate, deforestation also affects 1.6 billion of the world’s poorest people who directly depend on forests for their survival.16 Processes of deforestation vary from continent to continent. In South America it is driven primarily by logging and the expansion of large-scale farming, primarily to produce beef and soybeans; in South-East Asia, forests are being cleared primarily for timber production and for the expansion of oil palm and coffee for global markets.
The economic impacts of deforestation are immense. A 2008 study headed by Deutsche Bank economist Pavan Sukhdev, entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), estimates that the destruction of forests internationally is causing economic damage to the tune of $2 to $5 trillion, or up to seven percent of the global economy, annually. This calculation was done by placing value on the various services that healthy forests provide for free, such as carbon sequestration, food supply and water storage.17 Sukhdev emphasizes that the cost of this decline dwarfs the recent losses on the financial markets. “It’s not only greater but it’s also continuous – it’s been happening every year, year after year.”
The Global Canopy Programme (GCP), an alliance of 37 scientific institutions in 19 countries, is a world leader in forest canopy research, education and conservation. The programme proposes realistic new ways of compensating countries and companies for protecting their forests, in their own interest as well as the interest of the world community.
Andrew Mitchell, director of GCP, says that tropical rainforests are the “elephant in the living room of climate change”.18 In other words, their presence may be overwhelmingly obvious, but few people know how to deal with it. His perspective is supported by the 2006 Stern Review, which states that deforestation from 2008-2012 will be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than aviation since the invention of the aeroplane until at least 2025. It says that curbing deforestation should be regarded as a highly cost-effective way of reducing GHG emissions. 19
A view from the Amazon
In its entirety the Amazon Basin covers some 7 million square kilometres. The lion’s share, some 5 million square kilometres, is in Brazil, and the remainder stretches across eight other countries. At least 60 percent of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests, with their unsurpassed biodiversity – including some 55,000 different plant species – are to be found in the Amazon. Moreover, the forests in the Amazon Basin contain at least the equivalent of one-fifth of all the carbon currently in the atmosphere, and recent studies show that intact Amazonian forests are also functioning as a globally significant carbon sink, even absorbing some of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from industrial emissions. 20
Deforestation for logging, cattle ranching, soybean production, mining and smallholder farming has so far affected about 20 percent of the Amazon forest, with the greatest impacts in the eastern and southern Amazon. Major concerns are not only carbon loss as a result of deforestation, but also changes in the moisture transfer across vast areas.
The Amazon basin is an enormous heat engine, taking heat from the sun, turning it into water vapour and powering tropical air circulation. It has been shown through modelling by two Russian climate scientists that the multi-layered canopy of rainforests is ideal for the transfer of water through cloud formation over long distances. For instance, the only way water will transfer from the Atlantic Ocean to the Andes is through the canopy of the Amazon rainforest.21
A recent report, Drought Sensitivity of the Amazon Rainforest, published by Science magazine in March 2009, presents evidence that the Amazon rainforest is very sensitive to drought – which is likely to intensify under global warming. The 25-year study, which involved some 68 scientists, has used the severe drought that struck the Amazon in September 2005 as a “unique opportunity to directly evaluate the large-scale sensitivity of tropical forest to water deficits”. The study concluded that drought causes massive carbon loss in the forest – mainly through killing trees that are not able to tolerate the drier soil conditions. 22
The researchers found that the Amazon forest normally absorbs nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, but in 2005 the dry conditions caused it to lose more than 3 billion tonnes of living biomass. “The total impact of the drought – 5 billion extra tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – exceeds the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined”, stated the press release from Leeds University, which led the research.
Covering the research in The Independent newspaper, Steve Connor wrote: “The Amazon has long been the lungs of the world. But now comes dramatic evidence that we cannot rely on it in the fight against climate change.” 23
Since the 2005 drought, the Brazilian government had some success in lowering the rate of deforestation caused by human activity. In 2006 deforestation was reduced by some 30 percent, but in 2007, with the growing interest in biofuels and rising food prices (which were also partly because of biofuels) deforestation rates shot up again and it was clear that the government did not have deforestation under control. It remains to be seen whether the current world recession has reduced deforestation rates once again.
While scientists and climatologists are hesitant about making predictions too far into the future, many believe that the forest system, particularly in the eastern Amazon, is dangerously close to collapse and that drought could occur regularly in the coming years, with dire consequences for areas beyond which depend on the Amazon for their rainfall. Brazilian hydrologists have shown that the Amazon basin evaporates some 20 billion tonnes of water daily, and that the standing forest helps to lower surface air temperatures through evaporation. This evaporative cooling and the resulting recycling of water is crucial for all the other services provided by the forests, including carbon storage.
Many scientists now think that we are approaching a critical point, certainly in the East Amazon. If the forest system were to collapse, this would disrupt huge energy and moisture flows which would have a ‘shockwave’ effect across the world’s climate systems.24
New demands for forest products
Africa’s Congo Basin Forest, the largest expanse of tropical forest outside the Amazon, is coming under huge pressure from international timber markets. This is epitomized by a story from the environment editor of The Guardian newspaper, John Vidal, who visited the region in 2007 to write about the logging operations there. In a saw mill he saw several huge trees being cut up, and when he asked where the timber was going to end up, the answer was: at the cycle track being built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Rapidly growing economies such as China are scouring the world for timber and other forest products. China now buys 55 percent of the Republic of Congo’s timber exports, which come almost entirely from virgin forests.25 Increasingly, not only timber but also palm oil and soybeans are being imported from ecologically vulnerable rainforest regions. Malaysia is supplying ever-growing amounts of palm oil from converted rainforests. In 2006 it exported some 14.4 million tonnes of palm oil, and of this China imported nearly 3.6 million tonnes.26 In the last 20 years China has become the world’s largest importer of whole soybeans as well as oil and meal by-products.27 Brazilian soy exports to China, mainly from the Amazon and former savannah regions in Mato Grosso, increased from one million tons to four million tons between 1999 and 2003.28
“What if China reaches the US consumption level per person?” asks Lester Brown, CEO of the Earth Policy Institute. “If China’s economy continues to expand at eight percent a year, its income per person will reach the current US level in 2031. If at that point China’s per capita resource consumption were the same as in the United States today, then its projected 1.45 billion people would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain harvest. China’s paper consumption would be double the world’s current production. There go the world’s forests.” 29
It is, however, important to point out that China is only following in the footsteps of Europe, the US and Japan, whose demands have been the primary contributor to deforestation in the tropics until recently, and this continues today despite substantial efforts by environmental lobbies such as the Forest Stewardship Council to certify timber and other tropical forest products. New strategies to protect and renew forests around the world are urgently needed.
and ‘avoided deforestation’
The fact that the 1997 Kyoto agreement did not address the need to reduce CO2 emissions from deforestation is a major problem. This was partly due to a lack of sufficient knowledge of the emissions involved. The negotiators initially had difficulties with measuring the emissions and setting suitable baselines, but this has since been rectified. In 1997 there was also a major concern that the sheer scale of carbon credits produced from ‘avoided deforestation’ would tend to undermine incentives to reduce emissions by other sectors. As a result of these factors, reforestation projects were included in the agreement, but ‘avoided deforestation’ was left out.
Today, technological advances such as satellite monitoring technology have given us accurate measures of both annual forest losses and carbon emissions from deforestation. The notion that avoided deforestation should be included within international carbon markets is now being hotly debated. Many experts feel that without schemes for compensating developing countries for avoided deforestation, any post-Kyoto climate deal will not be able to achieve the global emissions reductions necessary to combat climate change.
The Global Canopy Programme says that it is crucial to acknowledge that living forests provide valuable climatic services that deforested areas cannot provide, and the overall economic value we place on forests needs to reflect this. Thus the only way to curb further deforestation is to put a price on carbon contained in forests and so provide an incentive for developing countries to protect them.
New financial incentives are important because the efforts of NGOs to reduce deforestation by appealing to the environmental and social responsibility of producers and consumers have so far had only limited success. Philanthropy has also been on an inadequate scale to deal with such a huge task. The urgency of the climate challenge means we must develop more effective and innovative methods of international cooperation to curb deforestation.
There is a complex set of factors behind deforestation, and they have to be well understood for any policy framework to be successful. The primary reason is that presently the conversion of forest to other land uses such as farming, plantations and mining is usually more profitable, particularly if it is supported by government policies, subsidies and international trade. Poorly defined property rights, non-transparency, financial gain by elites and weak law enforcement are other causes of deforestation. Any alternative policies intended to counter deforestation must deal with this complex set of issues.
Experts agree that ecosystems – and especially rainforests – must be a central part of any post-Kyoto agreement – because it is the most immediate and cost-effective way to achieve real and significant reductions in GHG emissions. There is now growing consensus that financial compensation for avoided deforestation is the best way to reduce loss of forests, particularly in the tropics.
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD)
Since 2005 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been trying to create a new international policy framework to counter deforestation. REDD has been developed largely as a result of initiatives by developing countries, led by Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea. It is intended to enable these countries to earn credits for avoided deforestation. The idea is that developing countries which protect their forests, which can therefore continue to provide essential ecosystem services for the world, should be compensated for doing so. If REDD is to be part of a post-2012 climate deal, agreement must be reached in Copenhagen in December 2009.
If REDD is to work effectively it needs to address carbon emissions, biodiversity, ecosystem services and rural poverty alleviation all at the same time. Above all else, it must help assure sustainable livelihoods for forest-dependent communities.
A crucial issue is for local communities, who have lived with and depended on the forests for centuries, to participate in designing REDD schemes and to benefit from them. REDD schemes will only work if it is clear who is to be compensated and how. For that reason it is important to strengthen the capacity of forest protection agencies to assure that the rewards for avoided deforestation reach the right people and do not just end up in the hands of corrupt officials, cattle ranchers, and palm oil and logging companies.
A pre-emptive scheme for compensating those who have never deforested will be rather difficult to measure, but would be fairer. The Global Canopy Programme has proposed Proactive Investment in Natural Capital (PINC) as a complementary framework to REDD. PINC would reward nations and landowners for the ecosystem services that protected forests provide. A critical issue is to work out the present value of the forests to be protected, and this needs much careful thought and monetary calculation.
The forest canopy as capital
For many years forest campaigners have drawn attention to the ecological dangers of deforestation, but little has been achieved because the underlying financial interests have not been sufficiently addressed. As greenhouse gas emissions rise, conservation is becoming increasingly important. As the world realizes the enormous value of ecosystem services, countries which preserve their rainforests will have assets worth billions. Investors are beginning to recognize this opportunity, and this is the rationale behind a recently established organization called Canopy Capital, a not-for-profit financial lobby for rainforests, initiated by former London investment banker Hylton Murray-Philipson.
He started Canopy Capital to harness the power of the markets and the profit motive in the cause of conservation. The main point of his initiative is to establish that whilst markets have valued products such as beef and soya, they have ignored the services of the intact rainforest. If these are not valued, we are likely to lose them. By recognizing and valuing the ecological services the forest provides – such as carbon storage, moisture transfer, climate moderation and biodiversity – Canopy Capital aims to generate investment in rainforests which will enable their preservation for the benefit of all of humanity, whilst providing economic and social benefits to local communities.
Canopy Capital’s first partnership is with the administrators of the Iwokrama Reserve in Guyana: “Murray-Philipson’s goal is to counter the pressures of globalization that are driving deforestation by developing a new capital market to value standing forests. Specifically, this will include the launch of an Ecosystem Service Certificate attached to an €80m, 10-year tradable bond, the interest from which will pay for the protection and maintenance of 350,000 hectares of the Guyana rainforest. The deal is being conducted through a partnership with the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development in Guyana.”
Using income from the ecosystem services of the intact forest, the plan is to make Iwokrama financially independent of donors by 2010. But Guyana is only the first port of call – Murray-Philipson is aiming for a global trading model for rainforest protection. He is working towards creating a Forest Index so that investors can treat forest as a legitimate asset class alongside other renewables such as wind, biomass and solar. “Fundamentally, this is about the global management of global carbon stocks, part of which must preserve biodiversity levels, indigenous cultures, and the monitoring and governance of the rainforest.” 30
A priority for Canopy Capital is to ensure that the scheme is of real benefit to indigenous people. 90 percent of the upside from the scheme will go to the people of Guyana for the sustainable management of the Iwokrama reserve and to provide livelihoods for the local forest communities.31
In Ecuador, Nature now has rights
After many years of environmental destruction, especially due to oil-extracting activities, Ecuador has approved a new constitution that is the first in the world to extend “inalienable rights to nature”.
Not too long ago, Ecuador would have seemed an unlikely nation to become the birthplace of Earth’s first green constitution. To service its massive debt to US creditors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund forced Ecuador to open its Amazon forests to foreign oil companies. Nearly 30 years of drilling enriched ChevronTexaco, desecrated the northern Amazon, and utterly failed to improve the lives of millions of poor Ecuadoreans.
In 1990, the Siona, Secoya, Achuar, Huaorani and other indigenous forest-dwellers won title to three million acres of traditional forestland, but the government retained rights to the minerals and oil. In November 1993, indigenous communities filed a $1 billion environmental lawsuit against Texaco, and subsequently demanded a 15-year moratorium on drilling, environmental reparations, corporate indemnification, and a share of oil profits.
In 1997, when Ecuador’s then pro-US government announced plans to rev up oil exploitation by a third, all eyes turned to the Yasuni rainforest, which harbours the country’s largest oil reserve, estimated at 1 billion barrels. The Yasuni is home to indigenous tribes whose territories have been protected by international treaty. It is also home to rare animal species, including jaguars, endangered white-bellied spider monkeys and spectacled bears.
In 2007, the new government of President Rafael Correa announced plans to halt oil exploration in the Yasuni, in an action Amazon Watch called “a giant first step toward breaking Ecuador’s dependence on oil”. Correa’s proposal marked a shift to making renewable energy the basis for Ecuador’s economic future. The language in the new constitution takes the new policy several steps further.
Ecuador’s radical new constitution features a chapter on the “Rights for Nature” that begins by invoking the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay (good living) and the Andean Earth Goddess: “Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” The constitution contains a Nature’s Bill of Rights that includes “the right to an integral restoration” and the right to be free from “exploitation” and “harmful environmental consequences”.
This idea is gaining momentum. In the US, municipalities in Pennsylvania, California, New Hampshire and Virginia have adopted Right to Nature laws in recent years.
Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange notes: “Slaves were once also considered property under the law” until Americans understood that “we needed to write new laws in order to change . . . the cultural climate.”
With parrot-flecked jungles containing more than 300 different tree species per hectare, cloud forests of amazing biodiversity and a border that extends to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is the perfect spot for the world’s first eco-constitution. Ecuador has swung a hammer against the chains designed to keep nature in thrall to commerce. It’s time for other nations to pick up the same hammer.
Earth Island Journal, Winter 2009
Reforestation benefits: carbon and timber
Currently the CDM under the Kyoto Treaty considers only afforestation and reforestation as acceptable carbon-sequestration activities. Whilst it is widely accepted that protecting existing forests is much more effective for carbon storage than reforestation and the afforestation of degraded land, major tree-planting initiatives are underway in different parts of the world. Reforestation certainly has an important additional role to play in countering the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere:
Carbon sequestration: New plantations can sequester carbon from the atmosphere at a rate of between 5 and 15 tonnes per hectare per year.32
Timber supplies: Although reforestation can provide no substitute for the ecosystem services provided by primary forests, the world needs timber, and this demand should be met from plantations, not from the standing forest, wherever possible.
It is important to point out that monoculture plantations of trees which are to be grown on former forest land for the purpose of carbon sequestration, should not be encouraged by international policy. Entrepreneurs are proposing all kinds of fancy solutions for coming to the aid of the planet: genetically engineered eucalyptus, pine trees and oil palms, the Super Kiri tree, the kenaf plant, and jatropha and other ‘miracle crops’ for carbon sequestration and alternatives to fossil fuels. But rarely is the question being addressed of where the water and plant nutrients needed for growing vast acreages of super-fast growing monocultures are likely to come from, and how such monocultures would affect the livelihoods of local communities on whose land they might be planted.
It seems important to restate that we must look beyond the role of forests as carbon sinks – they can provide many other important services, as we have seen above.
There are some interesting examples of tree-planting initiatives which set out to recreate natural forest ecosystems. ‘Analogue Forestry’, for instance, aims to reproduce the mixed multi-layered ecosystems that a diverse forest provides. And ‘agroforestry’, by which a variety of tree crops – including legumes – are produced on the same plot of land, is the most natural way of planting forests which can provide food, animal fodder and timber at the same time, whilst also capturing carbon from the air. Importantly, it can also help to restore the fertility of depleted soils for the benefit of local communities.
UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign
Reforestation, and the afforestation of degraded land, takes great effort and major investments, and the financial returns have to be counted in decades rather than years. Nevertheless, very substantial tree-planting efforts are now underway across the world.
The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Billion Tree Campaign was launched in 2006, and is backed by Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement (which initiated the planting of some 40 million trees in Kenya.) The Billion Trees Campaign has encouraged people all over the world – from private individuals and community groups to businesses and governments – to plant anything from just a handful to several million trees. Initially the target was to plant one billion trees in 2007, but the success of the campaign has led to the much more ambitious goal of planting seven billion trees by the end of 2009. By December 2008 a total of 4.2 billion trees had been pledged and almost 2.6 billion planted.
Speaking in February 2009, Wangari Maathai appealed to Heads of State around the world: “Imagine soldiers marching for the planet. While the armies of the world are waiting to fight an enemy that comes with a gun, we have another enemy, an unseen enemy, an enemy that is destroying our environment. The enemy that takes away our top soil, takes away our waters, destroys our forests, destroys the air we breathe, clears the forest. This is the unseen enemy and it cannot be fought with a gun. This enemy can be fought with a tree. So you can imagine how wonderful it would be if every soldier on this planet started seeing himself and herself as a soldier for the planet, holding a gun on one side and a tree seedling on the other, to fight this unseen enemy which is actually more dangerous to us than the other enemy.”
In Africa, Ethiopia has become a major tree-planting success story. In four decades Ethiopia’s forest cover had dropped from 40 to just 2.7 percent. But spurred on by UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign, Ethiopia has planted more trees than any other nation – some 700 million in the last few years. Tewolde Egziabher, head of the country’s Environmental Protection Authority and a member of the World Future Council, says that the combination of tree-planting and the development of organic farming has started to greatly improve the condition of rural communities in Ethiopia.
China, too, has undertaken very large-scale tree-planting schemes, talking of a ‘Great Green Wall’. It has established 24 million hectares of new forests and natural forest regrowth – an area the size of the UK – to transform previously denuded landscapes, particularly in major watersheds, and has been able to offset some 21 percent of its fossil-fuel emissions in 2000.33
There are also major success stories from South America: Cuba has done much tree-planting. Before the Cuban revolution in 1959, just 13.4 percent of the country was covered by trees. In the last 50 years the government’s planting programme has nearly doubled the national forest cover to some 25 percent. According to the FAO, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica are the four Latin American countries that have implemented very successful reforestation efforts.34
These examples are heartening, but much, much more needs to be done. Balancing forest protection and renewal, and philanthropy and profit, new ways must be found to safeguard and enhance the condition of the biosphere, the most important climate regulation system we have at our disposal.
Expanding bio-carbon sequestration projects beyond a few pilot schemes requires key measures such as security of tenure, assured funding streams, political stability and institutional capacity. International carbon projects effectively represent an emerging market opportunity. Only those countries that are well prepared will be able to fully take advantage of this. 35
The earth’s major natural sinks of CO2 are oceans, forests and, perhaps most importantly, soils. The global soil carbon pool is estimated
to amount to 2,500 Gt, whereas the biotic (vegetation-based) pool is 560 Gt.36 This section aims to provide a concise overview of the potential of soil renewal as a carbon sequestration option.
A new international climate treaty needs to cast its net much wider than the Kyoto Treaty as regards bio-carbon sequestration. In addition to the inclusion of reforestation and forest conservation, soil carbon storage should be included as an eligible carbon sink. In fact, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) in 2007 indicated that carbon sequestration by improved soil management holds very significant mitigation potential. Whilst soils hold less carbon per hectare than forests, the carbon storage potential resulting from improved farming practices is very large indeed.
The world’s total agricultural area is about 5 billion hectares, one billion more than for forests. Of this, about 1.5 billion ha (30 percent) is arable land and land under permanent crops, and the remaining 3.5 billion ha is permanent pasture. In addition, there are also up to 2.5 billion ha of rangelands.
Soils naturally contain large amounts of carbon, derived primarily from decayed vegetation. But the last few decades have seen a dramatic loss of top soil, soil carbon and inherent soil fertility due to the spread of unecological farming methods, and the one-way traffic of food supplies from rural areas to cities without the return of carbon back to the farmland where the food was grown. A recent report by the FAO states: “Most agricultural soils have lost anything between 30 and 75 percent of their antecedent soil organic carbon pool, or a total of 30 to 40 tC/ha. Carbon loss from soils is mainly associated with soil degradation . . . and has amounted to 78 +/- 12 Gt since 1850. Thus, the present organic carbon pool in agricultural soils is much lower than their potential capacity.37 . . . Considering all greenhouse gases, the global technical mitigation potential from agriculture is between 1.5 and 1.64 gigatonnes of carbon equivalent per year by 2030. Soil carbon sequestration is estimated to contribute about 89 percent to this mitigation potential”.38
All over the world soil and soil carbon (humus) is disappearing through erosion and through harvesting crops that end up being consumed in distant cities. In recent years there has been much talk about the world approaching ‘peak oil’, but perhaps even more importantly we have actually passed the point of ‘peak soil’ decades ago. Says Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University: “Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces. Yet, the problem, which is growing ever more critical, is being ignored – because who gets excited about dirt?”39
We urgently need international policy measures to restore soils to their previous levels of fertility and water-holding capacity, and to stop the ongoing release of carbon stored in soils, the world’s second largest carbon sink and potentially the world’s most effective carbon capture and storage option.
The impacts of soil erosion and carbon loss on world food production have been masked to some extent by an ever-greater array of technologies used in farming which have produced higher yields – however unsustainably. But now we need to find ways to sequester much more carbon from the atmosphere by developing bold initiatives on renewing the world’s living systems, including life in the soil. It is time to find ways of replacing the one-way linear systems of resource depletion, consumption and pollution that have prevailed in the recent past with circular systems which can replenish nature and assure a sustainable human existence on earth.
It is becoming apparent that the restoration of wastelands, degraded or desertified soils and ecosystems can dramatically enhance soil organic carbon content and soil quality. Such management practices include :
application of mulch, manure and compost
use of cover crops
improved pasture management
Farmers need support to alleviate agriculture’s contribution to climate change by reducing tillage, increasing organic soil matter, improving grassland management, restoring degraded lands, planting trees and improving animal husbandry systems.40 These sorts of practices not only enhance soil fertility but also the water storage capacity of soils, and thereby increase the productivity of farmland and grazing land. Restoration of soil organic matter can reverse land degradation, which is urgently needed in many parts of the world. Not only can this help increase food security, but its can also reduce the use of fossil fuels and associated GHG emissions.
The FAO states that soil carbon sequestration can take effect very quickly and is a cost-effective win-win approach which combines mitigation, adaptation, increased resilience and the promise of more reliable and increased crops yields.
“Soil carbon storage was hitherto left out of international negotiations because of envisaged difficulties of validation of amounts and duration/permanency of sequestration. However, in addition to the undisputable multiple benefits of soil carbon storage, soil sampling for verification purposes is less expensive and more accurate than the indirect estimation of carbon stored in living biomass.
The FAO has recently prepared a Global Carbon Gap Map that identifies land areas of high carbon sequestration potential, and is developing local land degradation assessment tools that include a simple field measurement of soil carbon. FAO is also working on tools to measure, monitor and verify soil carbon pools and fluxes of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural soils, including cropland, degraded land and pastures.” 41
All in all, the potential for soil carbon sequestration is very large indeed and deserves to be incorporated into the post-Kyoto regime. With global population expected to grow to nine billion by 2050, and with increasingly uncertain oil and water supplies, well-thought-out new approaches to securing carbon-rich organic soils can help to secure the food supplies of future generations. We need policies to renew the world’s soils in closed-loop, low-input farming systems based on a sustainable relationship between urban food consumers and rural farming communities.
“Millions of farmers around the globe could become agents of change, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. . . . Agricultural land is able to store and sequester carbon. Farmers that live off the land, particularly in poor countries, should therefore be involved in carbon sequestration to mitigate the impact of climate change,” said Alexander Mueller, FAO Assistant Director-General at a recent conference in Bonn.42
A potential major additional benefit of measures to support soil quality and carbon sequestration could be to halt or even reverse migration of people from rural areas to the cities. Funding for enhanced soil
carbon sequestration could thus have major environmental as well as economic and social benefits.
SEKEM – An Egyptian Initiative for Sustainable Development
SEKEM is an Egyptian development initiative founded by Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish in the Egyptian desert in 1977 which unites the ecological, social, cultural and economic dimensions of life. Dr. Abouleish, who is a member of the World Future Council, started cultivating desert areas near Cairo using sustainable agricultural practices. In 2009 SEKEM’s work extends to 4,500 hectares and directly involves 2,000 people who work for SEKEM in all the different fields. Moreover, around 30,000 people from the surrounding community make use of SEKEM’s cultural and social services that are offered by the SEKEM Development Foundation and other related NGOs.
Aware of the great demand for rural development, and of the negative side-effects of industrialized farming on humans and ecosystems, Dr. Abouleish and his collaborators decided to take a different path. Avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they built up healthy soils by using organic materials. By combining various cultivation techniques, dynamic ecosystems were created in which natural methods are substituted for the input of chemicals and conventional fertilizer. Natural predators are used to fight parasites and sophisticated crop rotation practices sustain soil fertility and minerals. Today, the fruits, herbs and vegetables that are produced are processed into high quality foodstuffs, medicine and cotton textiles which are marketed nationally and internationally by the companies of the SEKEM Group. Each year 10 percent of their earnings are reinvested into the social and cultural activities of the SEKEM Development Foundation (SDF). The SDF runs a kindergarten, a school, a medical centre, a vocational training centre, programmes for disadvantaged children and a research academy embracing several research and adult training programmes.
Today, the organic farming methods SEKEM introduced into Egypt have been widely applied across the country. To spread the sustainable agricultural methods and secure raw material for the SEKEM companies, the Egyptian Biodynamic Association (EBDA) was established – a non-governmental, non-profit organization to provide training and consultancy to all farmers in Egypt, enabling them to apply organic and biodynamic agricultural methods and get the necessary certifications. To date EBDA has succeeded in facilitating the conversion of more than 800 farms with over 6,500 hectares to biodynamic farming. Through its research, in 1991 EBDA was the first organization in the world to supervise the cultivation and harvesting of biodynamic cotton. One direct result was a landmark reduction in the use of synthetic pesticides in Egypt by over 90 percent, from over 35,000 tons per year. At the same time, the average yield of raw cotton was increased by almost 20 percent. Furthermore Libra, SEKEM’s cultivation company, promotes and implements sustainable soil management and composting practices, including agricultural GHG emission reduction projects.
The important point here is that SEKEM’s agricultural practices are helping to tackle climate change. Firstly they emit less greenhouse gases by avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers and due to lower needs for irrigation. Secondly, the healthy soils built up by the application of organic material store much higher levels of carbon than conventional agricultural soils that are cultivated using chemical fertilizers. Thirdly, SEKEM’s farming practices also help farmers to adapt to effects of climate change such as droughts and heavy rainfall. Today, scientists agree that enhancing the condition of global soils can play a crucial role in keeping atmospheric CO2 concentration within acceptable limits. SEKEM’s work shows that sustainable practices are not only cost-competitive but also address a range of urgent climatic, ecological, economic and social problems.
The promise of biochar
In addition to measures for enriching farmland and pastures with ‘conventional’ organic matter, a very significant new option is becoming available under the heading of ‘biochar’. This fairly new term is based on ancient farming practices that appear to have been used in the tropics.
In 1542, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana was the first European to travel down the Amazon River near Ecuador. While he never found El Dorado, the city of gold he was looking for, he found densely populated regions along the river. He reported that the jungle area held a sedentary farming population, with many villages and towns, and even large, walled cities. The population levels he saw possibly exceeded even those found in the Amazon region today. Sadly, the arrival of Europeans also introduced new diseases which appear to have wiped out a large part of the Indian population within decades.
Because they used only wood as their construction material, the populations seen by Orellana and his companions did not create lasting monuments that visitors can see today, but they did leave behind dark, fertile soil in many riverside locations. The Amazonians of centuries ago appear to have produced charcoal by burning plant material in pits covered with earth. They then mixed this ‘biochar’ with organic wastes to create dark, fertile soil. This ‘Terra Preta’ can still be found across the Amazon basin – some 60 locations with deep rich, dark soil often containing pottery fragments have so far been identified.43
Amazonian Indians today still produce charcoal by burning areas of forest to turn them into gardens in a process called slash-burn agriculture. But the ash produced in this way is mainly left on top of the soil and not dug in, and neither is it mixed with organic wastes. The people from the riverside settlements seen by Orellana are long gone, but the dark, deep, fertile soil they cultivated over thousands of years remains.
Terra Preta soils contain far more charcoal than soils found elsewhere in the Amazon. Scientific research has shown that the porous quality of the biochar these soils contain allows them to harbour a vast variety and quantity of soil micro-organisms. The biochar particles can improve soil structure, and enhance the presence of micro-organisms and plant nutrients. Adding biochar to the soil not only enhances fertility and life in the soil, but also helps it to retain moisture – which is very important in an age of climate change.
Research into biochar started in Holland in the 1960s, and there are now hundreds of research programmes into various aspects of biochar across the world. A recent book, Biochar for Environmental Management: Science and Technology, edited by Prof. Johannes Lehmann, is a state of the art compilation, covering all aspects of biochar and written by some 50 researchers. Tim Flannery, the eminent Australian naturalist and a member of the World Future Council, states in his foreword: “This book, I believe, provides the basic information required to implement the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future. The biochar approach provides a uniquely powerful solution: it allows us to address food security, the fuel crisis and the climate problem, and all in an immensely practical manner. Biochar is both an extremely ancient concept and one very new to our thinking. . . . Yet few farmers living today have heard about biochar.” 44
‘Modern biochar’ is produced by pyrolysis (low-oxygen combustion) of organic materials – forest thinnings, sawdust, agricultural wastes, urban organic wastes or sewage solids – and the resulting charcoal-like substance can be incorporated into farmland as a long-term carbon storage option. Importantly, biochar is also claimed to convert carbon from the atmosphere into stored carbon in soil. Unlike natural decay or the combustion of organic matter, the pyrolysis process releases only a fraction of the carbon content of the source material into the atmosphere.
By ‘pyrolysing’ one tonne of organic material which contains half a tonne of carbon, about half a tonne of CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil, whilst the other half can be used as a carbon-neutral fuel (this equals a quarter of the CO2 absorbed by a plant during its growth). Biochar has the potential to lock the mineral carbon it contains safely away in the soil for centuries. In addition, the ancillary benefits – not just its
soil-improving characteristics, but certain by-products of its manufacture – make it economically attractive as well.
Research has shown that biochar can last hundreds to thousands of years in the soil. It can change soil properties favourably, and help deliver nutrients to plants better than in soil that has not been treated. An ever-growing number of researchers now suggest that biochar-in-soil practices could be a most cost-effective means of reducing carbon in both the atmosphere and oceans.
Professor Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University and others have calculated that biochar applications to soil could remove several billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere per year.46
A major question that needs an urgent answer is how enough organic matter can be made available to produce significant amounts of biochar. Opponents argue that farming communities in developing countries may
be forced to produce fast-growing tree monocultures on precious agricultural land to produce biochar to counter climate change for which they are not even responsible. It is certainly true that, unlike in Amazonia centuries ago, there is not likely to be much spare biomass available to produce the amounts of biochar that may be needed to make a significant difference.
Just how can large quantities of biochar be produced? To find an answer to this question it is worth having a look at the sewage works in Bingen, Germany. Here semi-dried sewage sludge is fed via a conveyor belt into a steel container where it is pyrolysed and turned into black granules: the sewage is turned into charcoal. This can then be buried in farm soil and the carbon it contains can thus be prevented from entering the atmosphere. At the Bingen University of Applied Sciences, Helmut Gerber, the engineer in charge of the project, is convinced of the enormous potential of sewage-derived biochar.47 There is no doubt that the billions of tonnes of sewage that accumulate in cities every year, if turned into biochar and buried, could greatly benefit the world’s soils soil as well as the atmosphere.
The potential of salt water crop irrigation
Another new option of great significance both for carbon storage and the production of food and timber is the use of saltwater-tolerant plants, such as mangroves and salicornia shrubs. Scientists estimate that saltwater-loving plants could open up half a million square miles of previously unusable territory for crops, whilst helping to settle the heated food-versus-fuel debate of recent years. By increasing the world’s irrigated acreage by 50 percent, saltwater crops could provide a valuable additional source of biomass.
In a recent issue of Science magazine, two plant biologists, citing the work of Robert Glenn, a plant biologist at the University of Arizona, argued that “the increasing demand for agricultural products and the spread of salinity now make this concept worth serious consideration and investment.” 48
Glenn has been arguing for the value of saltwater farming for nearly thirty years, for both food and fuel production. His team estimates that salt-loving crops could be used to produce 1.5 billion barrels of ethanol annually on a swathe of new agricultural land almost five times the size of Texas.
Says Glenn: “I’m convinced that saltwater agriculture is going to open up a whole new expanse of land and water for crop production. Maybe the world hasn’t needed a 50 percent expansion in irrigated agricultural land because we’ve had enough food, but now that biofuels are in the mix, I think it’s the way crop production should go.”
There is plenty of previously uncultivated land in the world’s coastal deserts,??? and these could play an important role in crop and fuel production. Glenn estimates that 480,000 square miles of unused land around the world could be utilized to grow salt-tolerant plants, or halophytes. While salt damages most plants, these salt-loving plants actually use the saltwater to draw in fresh water. One particular plant, salicornia, produces 1.7 times more oil per acre than sunflowers, a common source of vegetable oil.
Halophytes could also be part of the solution to another environmental problem: heavily-salinated wastewater from large farms. Currently this is dumped into man-made wetlands. For example, in California, the Imperial Valley authorities dump their salty water into the Salton Sea. After absorbing 80 years of agricultural runoff, the Salton Sea is 25 percent saltier than the ocean and is facing serious ecological problems. Instead of pumping salinized water into these wetlands, the farms could capture that wastewater and use it to grow halophytes.
But even if halophytes can help solve some of the world’s environmental problems, one has to be realistic about the difficulties of changing agricultural systems. Says Glenn: “I started in aquaculture back in the early 70s and we thought, golly, aquaculture is going to save the world. Looking back, it’s been 35 years, but over half of the key fisheries products come from aquaculture, it just took longer than people thought. I think it’s the same thing with saline crop production.” 49
In addition to salicornia, it would be possible to replant mangroves in estuaries and marine shorelines where they have been cut down, in areas affected by salinization, or in places that are deliberately flooded with saltwater or brackish water. Mangroves are found in tropical and sub-tropical tidal areas that have a high degree of salinity. There are about 110 species of mangrove, and apart from the benefit of their rapid growth they are also provide habitats for a great variety of living species and act as nurseries for fish and other marine species. Layers of soil and peat which make up the mangrove substrate have a high carbon content of 10 percent or more, and a hectare of mangrove forest can sequester about 1.5 tonnes of carbon per year. 50
Carbon and the oceans
The oceans absorb about one-third of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels – mainly through the growth of plankton. However, this valuable ecological service comes at a high price – the acidification of the oceans. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it forms carbonic acid and the pH of the water decreases as a result. Since the industrial revolution began, it is estimated that surface ocean pH has dropped by nearly 0.1 units, equating to approximately a 25 percent increase in acidity. This rate of change is a great cause for concern as there is no evidence that the world’s oceans have ever acidified so rapidly. By the end of this century, pH could be three times lower and the change could be 100 times faster than that experienced during the transitions from glacial to interglacial periods.51 The effects of ocean acidification are predicted to put maritime ecosystems at major risk, and there is an emerging scientific consensus that every effort possible must be made to prevent the pH of surface waters from dropping by more than 0.2 units below the pre-industrial value.52
The full ecological consequences of ocean acidification are still uncertain, but it appears likely that many calcifying species, such as corals and shellfish, will be affected. This could have adverse effects on climate change, both by reducing the bio-capacity of the oceans and by decreasing the earth’s albedo via the effect of their bio-productivity on oceanic cloud cover. Global reductions of carbon emissions, with simultaneous efforts to enhance the earth’s bio-sequestration capacity, are clearly urgently called for.
Meanwhile there are other aspects of what is happening to the oceans that have received much less attention from climate researchers. The massive growth of cities along rivers and in coastal regions all over the world has also led to a tremendous increase in the discharge of sewage into coastal waters. This represents a tremendous transfer of both carbon and plant nutrients from rural areas into the sea. All over the world polluted coastal waters cloud sea-bed vegetation, reducing its bio-productivity. At the same time, surplus nutrients produce algal blooms that remove oxygen from the water and further affect its productivity.
According to a new survey by the US National Academy of Sciences, seagrass meadows, an important habitat for marine life, have been in rapid decline due to coastal development and pollution. Up to 70 percent of all marine life is directly dependent on seagrass. From 1940 to 1990, the annual loss of seagrass meadows has accelerated from 1 to 7 percent and there are only 177,000 square kms left globally. The survey indicates that seagrass meadows are as badly affected as coral reefs and tropical rainforests. Says Professor James Fourqurean, professor at Florida International University: “Seagrasses are disappearing because they live in the same kind of environments that attract people . . . in bays and around river mouths.”
Seagrass meadows are presently under greatest pressure in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean due to rapid coastal development. In other places, such as in Florida, seagrass beds have rebounded due to improvements in the quality of water flowing into the sea and as the result of restoration efforts. Restoration was first undertaken on a large scale in 1973 in Florida’s South Biscayne Bay by Prof. Anita Thorhaug of Yale University. Subsequently, seagrasses have been restored on all continental shelves. Much is now known about which species and techniques to utilize.
Says Thorhaug: “An evaluation of marine macro-plant sequestration potential by national and international carbon communities is urgently needed. The order of magnitude of carbon sequestered is potentially as great for marine macro-plant restoration as for forests. Unlike with forests there is little man-made competition for space for restoration.” 53
It seems evident that vigorous efforts to minimize sewage discharges into coastal waters and to enhance their bio-productivity need to be considered as an integral part of any strategy to enhance the bio-sequestration capacity of planet earth. Together with initiatives to reduce the acidification of the oceans, these are matters that need to be addressed urgently.
In a recent article, NASA climatologist Jim Hansen and others stated that reforestation of degraded land and improved agricultural practices that retain soil carbon, between them, could lower atmospheric CO2 by as much as 50 ppm.54 If the carbon sequestration potential of restoring seagrass meadows and other types of aquatic vegetation to enhance the uptake of CO2 is added, we can reach fairly optimistic conclusions. However, only joint initiatives on bio-sequestration involving many different groups will ultimately achieve the desired goal of a climate-proof world.
It is a major challenge for the international community to come up with suitable funding mechanisms for level-headed bio-sequestration in all the various forms in a new Kyoto Treaty. Many carbon offset schemes are already available – both commercial and non-commercial. The successor to the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Agreement, which is intended to transfer funds from developed to developing countries for the benefit of climate protection, must incorporate proposals that benefit both local communities as well as the global human community. By initiating well-thought-out measures to improve the carbon sequestration potential of the biosphere we will also be investing in the sustainability and viability of rural communities in the face of rampant urbanization.
In the 1930s President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to “conserve our natural resources and create future natural wealth”. Today an Earth Restoration Corps could be set up for a similar purpose and provide meaningful work for people who want to dedicate themselves to restoring the health of our planet for future generations.
These are the main challenges:
Quantifying the annual financial cost
of damage to the world’s natural environment
Bringing together organizations involved in forest conservation, reforestation, soil restoration, biochar and aquatic ecosystems restoration into a joint international lobby
Assuring that bio-sequestration is given international policy priority in countering climate change
Using funds for bio-sequestration as
a tool for reviving rural and coastal communities
Andrew Mitchell Global Canopy Programme
Peter Bunyard The Ecologist Magazine
Hylton Murray-Philipson Canopy Capital
Nicola Wilks WWF
Johannes Lehmann Cornell University
Craig Sams Carbon Gold
Patrick Holden Soil Association, UK
Peter Segger Soil Association, UK
Helmy Abouleish Sekem
Anthony Simon WFC advisor
Josep Canadell Global Carbon Project
Anitra Thorhaug Yale University
Bruno Glaser Bayreuth University
Randy Hayes WFC staff
Bruno Glaser Bayreuth University