Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Climate change: saving the rainforest

When we think of the causes of climate change, we think firstly of the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transport. However, deforestation, primarily of tropical forest in the developing world, is also a significant cause, and is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions - more than the entire transport sector. So if we want to solve this problem and bring our environment back into a sustainable balance, we need to find a way of discouraging poorer countries from cutting down and burning their trees. The problem, though, is that this is grossly inequitable. Timber and agriculture are significant industries in those countries, and usually their primary path to development. The west developed and insustrialised by cutting down its forests (look at how denuded Western Europe is), and we can't really deny that right to developing nations. If we want them to stop deforesting, we need to provide an alternative way for them to raise living standards and develop economically.

This has led to calls from the Rainforest Coalition for the west to pay them to preserve their forests. And this week, it has seen a dramatic offer from the former UK colony of Guyana to place its entire standing forest under international control as a carbon resevior. That's more than 16 milion hectares (37 million acres, for people who like archaic units) of tropical rainforest, holding as much carbon as the UK emits in 40 years, and (based on the data in their Initial National Communication under the UNFCCC [PDF]) absorbing around a quarter of the UK's annual emissions every year.

Naturally, they want something in exchange: a bilateral aid deal with the UK government, technical assistance, and help with encouraging private sector investment. If the absorption from Guyana's forests was priced at US$10 / ton (which may be a low estimate), they would be worth about US$300 million a year, or 10% of Guyana's GDP, which would be a welcome addition to Guyana's economy (they could also benefit from ecotourism, with the right investments). But the real value is in the resevoir, in stopping the trees from being cut down and setting them aside as a permanent carbon store and biodiversity reserve.

The bad news is that none of this counts under Kyoto. Guyana is a non-Annex I party, so has no Assigned Amount, therefore can not sell its absorption on the international market (there's an answer to this, of course - become an Annex I party). And avoided deforestation isn't considered solid enough to receive CDM credit (and for good reason). Despite this, the UK government is looking seriously at the offer as a way of sending a strong signal on the need to fight climate change and establish a model for bringing forest protection into the post-Kyoto framework. And if they don't take it up, I strongly suggest the New Zealand government starts looking at it (in combination with other nations). If we are to tackle climate change, we need to save the rainforest as well reducing our emissions, and this seems to be a good way of starting to do it.