David Suzuki: Forests are another piece of the global warming puzzle

We know that global warming is a reality and that we humans are its primary cause. And we know that carbon dioxide emissions, in large part from burning fossil fuels, are one of the biggest contributors to global warming. But we still have much to learn about the Earth’s mechanisms when it comes to regulating emissions and warming.

Forests—along with grasslands, soils, and other ecosystems—are an important part of the equation, and a new report published in the journal Nature sheds a bit more light on their role. We’ve known for a long time that forests are important carbon sinks. That is, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere thus preventing it from contributing to global warming.

But the Nature study shows that tropical forests absorb more carbon than we realized. Researchers from a number of institutions, including the University of Toronto, analyzed data from 79 intact forests in Africa from 1968 to 2007, along with similar data from 156 intact forests from 20 non-African countries.

They concluded that tropical forests absorb about 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon a year, equivalent to about 18 percent of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels.

The world’s oceans are the other major carbon sink, absorbing about half the human-produced carbon that doesn’t end up in the atmosphere.

That doesn’t mean we can count on the forests or the oceans to save us from our folly. To start, about 15 billion of the 32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that humans produce is not reabsorbed on land or sea and ends up in the atmosphere.

And the carbon stored in forests can be released back into the atmosphere with natural disturbances, such as fire or insect outbreaks, or if the forest is logged. This is because when trees are cut down, die, and decay naturally, or burn, some of the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Even if carbon remains stored in the form of wood products taken from a logged forest, some is still released when soils in the forest floor are disturbed by logging.

And many wood and pulp and paper products are discarded and destroyed in a much shorter time period than the life of an old-growth forest. This means that the carbon is released earlier than it would have been if the forests were left intact.

We humans have upset the balance of nature in more ways than we understand. The scientists haven’t figured out why the tropical trees are growing big enough to absorb more carbon than they release. One theory is that global warming and the extra carbon in the atmosphere are actually fertilizing the trees.

One thing we do know is that we cannot rely on tropical forests to prevent dangerous levels of climate change. But the amount of carbon they store gives us another compelling argument for protecting forests, as they may at least provide a buffer while we work on other solutions, such as reducing our energy consumption and switching to renewable sources of energy.

Clearly, it’s not the only reason to protect forests. Looking at the ability of forests to absorb carbon allows us to see that they have economic value beyond resources such as lumber that we have traditionally considered. Forests are a source of medicine, food, and clean drinking water and are habitat for over half of all land-based plants and animals on the planet. Forests also provide spiritual, aesthetic, and recreational opportunities for millions of people.

Forest degradation is also contributing to another ecological crisis, a biodiversity crisis on par with earlier mass extinctions. Scientists estimate that 16,000 species are now threatened with extinction, including 12 percent of birds, 23 percent of mammals, and 32 percent of amphibians. Habitat destruction is partly responsible for this crisis, and climate change is exacerbating it. And although most of our carbon emissions are from burning fossil fuels, one quarter is from deforestation.

What all this shows is how everything in nature is interconnected and how our planet works to find equilibrium. We can’t confront the problems we have created on a piecemeal basis. We must look at them together. Conserving the world’s forests—which can include sustainable forestry practices—is one obvious place to start dealing with some of the most imminent crises.

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org/.




Mar 12, 2009 at 1:48am

Individuals CAN prevent Global Warming

I am not completely convinced CO2 has anything to do with Global Warming. That notwithstanding, I am certain that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is both a good idea and necessary, for a large number of obvious reasons.

The good news is that we can all make a difference. It goes way beyond buying a few (polluting) low energy light bulbs, and will have a real impact if even half of those concerned about Global Warming follow the proposals. The beauty is that even if only half do this, it makes no difference what the rest do! Renewable energy will become cheaper than fossil fuels with enough investment in the technology, and everyone will move over naturally!

Firstly, buy renewable energy.

As far as I am aware, you have the choice to buy renewable electricity in all developed countries. If you cannot now, you should campaign for that inalienable right immediately. Currently our own household buys 25% of our electricity as renewable, costing us about US$33 extra per year. 100% would cost US$183)*.

Some argue that if millions of householders (and industries, I would hope) buy renewable energy, there will not be enough. If you do not buy it, there will NEVER be enough. If you do, the money will be used to INVEST in infrastructure for future renewable energy, so making the expense just as effective.

Merely by choosing to buy this, you are immediately and directly investing in the renewable energy industry, and sending a powerful and undeniable message to those who matter, the people who actually generate electricity, not environmentalists or politicians who may have different agenda.

Secondly, stop investing in 'Big Oil' and 'Big Coal'.

It comes as a shock to many ordinary citizens to be told that the huge greedy corporations actually make money for THEM, not for some faceless consortium. Sure, corporate flunkies may make millions of dollars, but WE, as investors, make billions, and even trillions. Their huge payouts and massive junkets are insignificant compared to the profits the companies make for their investors.

You may well think that you do not invest in these companies, but if you have a pension or investment fund, you almost certainly do. These funds will, quite obviously, be invested in the very companies that make the most profits and returns for their investors. All these corporations are doing is actually acting effectively YOUR instruction, ie to get the best possible return. If WE stop investing in them, they fail, and will be forced to change their practices to survive in a capitalist environment.

The answer is to choose ethical investments (there may be different names). Talk to your financial adviser and make the switch now. ONLY YOU control your investments. Make the choice and stop letting others do it for you.

The message is that YOU control the future of energy production with your wallets. The bad news is that it will cost, but nothing the environmentalists or governments will ever do about this issue will cost you less than this, and most of what they want to do will take control away from you and waste most of your expenditure in bureaucratic bungling and misguided foolishness, in my opinion. This simple two-step approach has all the potential to work and with no complex side effects that I can see immediately. It has a direct and immediate effect.

It is so rare that we are able to do something so straightforward in this complex world. If Global Warming concerns you, I urge you to put your money where your mouth is, and make an immediate difference TODAY, before the power is taken away from you.

* Based on a usage of 5,000 kWh of electricity.
Source: http://www.originenergy.com.au/1142/Green-energy-FAQs#extracost


John B

Jun 19, 2010 at 11:47am

We all know global warming is a myth and has no cause. 30 years ago they said we had 10 years to save the world. So now we still have 10 years to save the world? Or maybe 40 or so? At one time they claimed 75% of the worlds O2 was produced by the Brazilian rain forest. They then admited they lied to try and save the forest (the oceans actually produce most of the O2 on the planet). And what about the hockey stick does anyone really think anything in nature actually works that way (short of a atomic bomb exploding)?