22 January, 2008

ARTICLE: Flying clouds the real climate culprit

Martin Wright, BBC NEWS
Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The aviation industry has become public enemy number one for environmental groups, says Martin Wright. But, he argues in this week's Green Room, they should focus their efforts on "the real elephant in the room" - forest destruction.

Ask some vaguely green people what's the single biggest thing they can do to tackle climate change, and most will respond with a guilty smile: "yes, I know, I should stop flying."

A few brave, selfless souls do just that. But the rest of us are far too used to cheap, quick getaways to kick the habit completely.

There's nothing like a few months of unremitting English mizzle to soften the resolve of the most committed "no flyers".

Environmentalists will always struggle to persuade people to eschew pleasure in favour of the planet. After all, no-one likes being told off for having a good time. Any argument that says, in effect: "save the planet - stay at home in the wet" is hardly going to win hearts and minds.

Sure, there's always the slow train to Provence. But like so much of the Slow Movement (food; travel; life, even), it still reeks of privilege. It's more expensive, it takes (and lasts) longer.

There could be all kinds of ways - from subsidies to sabbaticals - of making it more accessible for those whose only hope of a great escape is an Easyjet south. But for the moment, life in the slow lane is still a velvety green luxury for the favoured few.

So until such time as fuel prices go through the roof, or draconian caps on carbon stifle the market, air travel will remain a seductive option for all but the deepest of greens.

Real carbon culprit

But while we're agonising over our aircraft addiction, we're missing the real "elephant in the living room" of climate change: forest destruction.

It is already the largest single source of carbon emissions after energy, contributing up to 10 times as much as aviation.

The Stern Report, no less, warned that rainforest destruction alone would, in the next four years, release more carbon into the atmosphere than every flight from the dawn of aviation until 2025.

Burning forests produces a particularly nasty double whammy of warming. As they burn, they send vast swathes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And once they're gone, they can't soak up the carbon from industry, cars and power plants.

But despite all this, people get far more exercised over the evils of aviation than they ever do over forest loss.

This is partly because aviation looms large on those instant "carbon calculators", designed to give a rough-and-ready guide to an individual's impact.

Deforestation, for the most part, doesn't, as it's virtually impossible to quantify individual responsibility for forest loss - unless you happen to be a timber trader or a palm oil planter.

But it's also because the forests are disappearing in "faraway countries": the chainsaws and fires aren't exactly on our doorstep, so it's easy to believe it's nothing to do with us - and there's nothing we can do about it, either.

This is bitterly ironic, because politically and economically it would be much easier to make massive reductions in deforestation than to achieve similar cuts in air travel. And in terms of curbing climate change, that would be massively more effective, too.

Tree hugging

So if we could just persuade people to be as excited about saving forests as they feel guilty about flying, then maybe we'd achieve something.

That means making forest conservation everyone's business - literally. And one of the best ways of doing so is to make the future of forests worth investing in - not just for the planet, but for your own pocket, too.

After all, you don't need complex technical fixes to stop forest destruction. You just have to make trees worth more standing than felled. And with the fate of civilisation cradled in their canopy, they should carry quite a price tag.

On paper, it's a no brainer. By any rational calculation, forests can yield better returns when kept intact than when cleared.

Take their role in protecting watersheds, for example, or their value as a source of fruit, nuts, shade-grown coffee, game and medicinal herbs - even, in some cases, a genuinely sustainable source of high-quality timber.

That's been the basis for a range of initiatives known as "payments for ecological services".

In essence, these are deals between forest communities and "buyers", who benefit from the forest remaining in place - such as towns and cities downstream, or the owners of mines or hydro plants, all of whom depend on the water supply that the forest ensures.

Cool Earth, a charity set up by businessman Johan Eliasch, allows individuals to buy parcels of rainforest - not for their own profit, but to hold them in trust on behalf of local communities, so taking them out of the clutches of the loggers.

It's an intriguing scheme, but it's still driven by charity, not business.

Sound investment

But once you introduce forests' ability to store carbon into the equation, then the balance sheet really starts to shift in their favour.

According to one recent study, most ventures which drive forest destruction - whether logging or for agriculture - generate around $5 (£2.50) for every tonne of carbon released as a result of the forest loss.

Europeans are typically paying up to seven times that amount to offset the same amount of carbon.

And as emissions trading takes off, so the carbon price will rise. One estimate puts the value of greenhouse gas storage in some forests at a healthy $2,200 (£1,100) per hectare.

And it's that which is pricking the interest of the financial markets. Invest in a forest now, and you can expect its value to appreciate substantially over the years - especially since, after the recent UN climate conference in Bali, forest owners can expect to "sell" their benefits on the emerging global carbon markets.

All of a sudden, it opens up the prospect of massive investments from pension funds, drawn to the long-term security which standing forests can provide.

Halving forest destruction by 2030, says the Stern Report, would cost around £10-£15 billion a year - that's roughly the same as we spend on alcohol in Britain alone. It is, in other words, a sum which should be readily available - as long as there's the prospect of a decent return.

The Global Canopy Programme - an alliance of forest scientists - is urging the adoption of a global market in forest carbon credits to help unleash a tide of investment.

Forum for the Future and others are working on schemes for forest-backed bonds; some are predicting the launch of Forest PEPs. Such is the potential value in keeping forests intact that even those masters of the dark arts of finance, the hedge funds, are starting to sniff around.

There are all manner of pitfalls, of course. For some, it smacks of "carbon colonialism".

Others warn that such schemes will inevitably favour wealthy landowners, who can cope with all the complex legal processes involved, rather than forest peoples themselves.

Then there's the question of proving that a particular stretch of forest, which may lie in a remote, hard-to-monitor area, really has survived intact.

But these are not insuperable obstacles. Investors don't have to buy up forests to make a return on them; they merely have to ensure they share in the proceeds of their conservation over times.

So they can for example rent, or lease, an interest in the forests from local communities, who are in any case best placed to safeguard the assets - and so can reasonably expect to share in the profits, too.

On the monitoring side, satellite mapping is now sophisticated enough to zero in to the scale of individual trees, providing pinpoint, 24-hour surveillance. Microchips inserted in selected trunks can report instantly if they're felled - and then track the timber, electronically fingering everyone involved.

So in a few years' time, you could sit at home on the sofa, and, via your laptop, check up on the health of "your" patch of forest, in real time.

Result? The world will have a million or more eagle-eyed forest monitors, casting a protective eye over the green canopy of their investments. (And only occasionally, you'd hope, needing to utter the anguished cry: "Oi! That's my pension plan going up in smoke!")

The logic is simple; the implementation will be anything but. But if we wait till we've a perfect system, we'll be wasting precious time; time in which thousands of square miles of forest will be irrevocably lost.

Martin Wright is editor (at large) of Green Futures Magazine

Article source: Flying clouds the real climate culprit, BBC NEWS

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