Uncharted Territory

December 3, 2009

Problems with Wood Chips: Why Copenhagen’s Piecemeal Approach to Preserving Forests will Fail

Filed under: Forests, Global warming, International climate deals — Tim Joslin @ 4:30 pm

We all share the same atmosphere. Wood is an internationally traded commodity. How is it, then, that, simultaneously, governments in East Asia are urging their citizens to reduce their consumption of wooden chopsticks whilst wood-burning boilers are being promoted in the UK?

Such a lack of consistency is typical of attempts to preserve forests, including the proposals apparently being discussed in the lead-up to the Copenhagen climate-change talks.

I’m finding literature supplied by the NGOs to be a lot more useful in understanding the Copenhagen discussions than anything I’ve seen in the mainstream media. A WWF “Pocket Guide” to “The New Copenhagen Climate Deal” was included with the Guardian early this week. I immediately turned to the section on forests (not apparently available online, but with some overlap to this page on WWF’s site). I highlighted the following passage about REDD which, according to WWF stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries”:

“There is no point paying to protect one forest, if the loggers and farmers simply go somewhere else and tear that down (in the jargon, this is called ‘leakage’) – or come back in a couple of years after REDD has paid out (the challenge of ‘permanence’).”

Very succinctly put.

Why, oh why, then would we even contemplate a REDD framework that does not meet the conditions of avoiding leakage and ensuring permanence?

As far as I can tell, Copenhagen is likely to spawn a variety of different schemes for preserving forests. These seem to fall into 3 main categories:

1. Carbon-trading REDD schemes

Specific areas of land are ring-fenced from deforestation (and/or reforested or afforested) and the amount of carbon “saved” compared to “business as usual” (i.e. if the land had not been protected). This carbon is then amortised over a number of years and traded as carbon credits for each of those years.

I don’t think I’m pre-empting a lot of discussion by suggesting that such schemes meet neither of the two criteria of avoiding leakage and ensuring permanence.

2. Preservation of specific forest areas

Despite New Scientist’s flippant headline, a scheme in Ecuador to preserve part of the Amazon rainforest (which happens to sit on a lot of oil) makes considerable sense:

“Ecuador said it would abandon plans for drilling in Yasuni National Park, one of the few pristine regions of Amazon rainforest remaining, if it was paid half of the $7 billion that it expected to earn from tapping the oilfield.”

The critical point is at the end of New Scientist’s report:

“…the UN Development Programme is expected to announce plans to hold contributions in a trust fund, passing along only the fund’s interest to Ecuador. … this will give future Ecuadoran governments an incentive not to start drilling for oil, while also encouraging other nations to pay up.”

This model could at least meet the challenge of permanence.

3. National commitments to reduce deforestation rates

The Copenhagen talks are unfortunately turning into a battle between the “developed” North and the “developing” South. This artificial distinction has spawned a counter-productive “them and us” mentality. It makes it even more difficult to define, let alone agree, sensible solutions to the problem of global warming.

Likely we are past the point where reducing deforestation rates is enough. Ultimately, we will probably need to significantly increase the forested area of the planet to absorb carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. But let’s put that issue to one side for now.

The problem with the “North” buying reductions in the rate of deforestation from countries in the “South” is the leakage criterion.

WWF has defined REDD as “reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries”. This makes absolutely no sense. We need to preserve temperate and boreal forests as well as tropical forests. You can’t assume a lot when it comes to the increasingly baroque Copenhagen negotiations, but I’d wager that none of Russia, Canada and the Scandinavian and Central European countries, not to mention Australia, Japan and New Zealand are classified as “developing”. It seems to me that the best that could happen under schemes aimed at reducing some national deforestation rates is that timber exports from those countries decrease, whilst they increase from countries not included in the scheme.

What is actually needed is a global Forest Endowment Fund which provides an income stream in perpetuity to any and all custodians of the world’s forests (and other ecosystems, in particular wetlands) in approximate proportion to the carbon stored in their trees and soils, as long as the forest remains in a defined state. Only this way is it possible to meet the key criteria, correctly identified by WWF, of avoiding leakage and ensuring permanence.


October 9, 2009

Researching and Reflecting on REDD

Filed under: Forests, Global warming, International climate deals — Tim Joslin @ 3:15 pm

My last post was in response to a spread in the Guardian on REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.  (The last D doesn’t stand for “in Developing countries” as I suggested last time.  I can’t identify the exact source [later: actually it was Friends of the Earth who repeat the mistake all over their output], but I can see why I made the error, as the UN appends this clause when it expands the abbreviation – more about this idiocy later).

Yesterday, though, I found myself delving into two numbers that were quoted by the Guardian:

– the estimate of 160 tonnes of carbon an acre stored at Rukinga ranch in Kenya;

– John Vidal’s note en passant that “(T)here are 32 REDD proposals”.   The link in the previous sentence is to a different version of the same Q&A that appeared in the print version of the Guardian on Tuesday (6th Oct).  The number “32” led me to understand that “Redd could be the cornerstone of a Copenhagen deal, putting forests at the frontline of tackling climate change for the first time”, as Vidal puts it (not in the print version which had the negative organised crime spin I criticised last time).  If this happens it will have profound consequences for a large proportion of the world’s population and have wide-ranging indirect effects on the rest of us.  And so it should, if we’re going to tackle global warming.  But you’d never believe we could be on the threshhold of such change from the level of media coverage (this informative article in the Economist is an exception).

It seems REDD is coming into being both from local action and as a global initiative.  Are the bottom-up or top-down approaches compatible?  Which yields the best model for a global solution?

REDD on the ground: the Rukinga case

First, where does that figure of 160 tonnes of carbon an acre lead us?  Before we can do too much we need to clarify the units – I’m going to have to assume that what is meant is 160 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) per acre, i.e. the carbon in the trees and soil doesn’t weigh 160 tonnes, but if burnt the CO2 would weigh that much.  This makes sense as 160 tonnes of carbon (tC) per acre is way too high and the Rukinga owners would be interested in the tonnes they can trade – the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) operates in tonnes of CO2eq.

Now, it turns out that Rukinga ranch is owned by a private American company, Wildlife Works.  In fact a 30% holding is advertised (pdf) as for sale.  (Where the 80,000 acres drops to 75,000 and then 74,490 – hey, why not round up to 100,000? – Rukinga is also described as on the boundary of the 22,000 km2 Tsavo National Park – my suspicions aroused lead me to check Wikipedia which gives Tsavo East as 11,747 km2 and Tsavo West as 7,065 km2, a total of 18,812 km2 – actually 20,812km2, since the Kenya Wildlife Service [who are to blame – you can see the 7,065km2  in broken links returned by Google from their old page about the reserve] now gives 9,065km2 [I’ve just corrected Wikipedia], leaving us 1,188km2 short – though Wikipedia’s maps show adjacent reserves in Kenya and over the border in Tanzania).

All that delving into numbers has made me lose the thread of my argument!  Perhaps I should move on now to the point that the Rukinga case study shows how much bureaucracy is going to be required if we try to implement precise carbon accounting.  If we want to get money quickly to those who deserve it – who, more to the point, we are relying on to preserve “standing carbon” (trees) – then it seems to me that it would be much more intelligent to start with quick and dirty estimates and gradually refine them over time.  Vidal notes that the Rukinga owners have spent $400,000 (rounded up, perhaps, he says cynically) measuring the trees.  Not everyone is going to have access to this amount of up-front capital.  Tsavo National Park, uncertain though its exact size is, is some 65 times the size of Rukinga, even at the figure of 20,812 km2 I arrive at [20,812 km2 is 2,081,200 hectares against Rukinga’s 32,000], so it would presumably cost $26,000,000 to measure its trees.  In the Amazon we’d be talking about millions of km2 (some inaccessible), so at over $1000/km2, we’d need $billions before we even get started!  No, embarking on exact accounting is to put the wrong foot forward.  We’ll do a Stephen Fry and end up in the water!

But what of that figure of 160 tonnes/acre?  Now, I just happen to be familiar with the numbers for this sort of thing.  Let’s first convert into some acceptable units.  I want tonnes of actual carbon per hectare (tC/ha).  As I said, pending clarification by the Guradian, I’m assuming the real estimate is 160 tCO2eq/acre.  There are approx. 2.5 acres (American or otherwise) in a hectare.  So ~400 tCO2/ha.  Converting to tC requires multiplying by 12/44 giving us about 109 tC/ha.

Now just to compound my frustration, the latest IPCC report (the 4th, published in 2007) doesn’t follow the same chapters as the previous report, so where, if anywhere, among the 3,000 odd pages, they’ve put the latest estimates of carbon stores, I simply don’t know.  I would have thought the data should be fairly prominent, so I downloaded and searched numerous pdfs yesterday evening – to no avail.

Anyway, in 2001, the IPCC did publish a number of tables, and this morning I’ve found a hard copy of Table 3.2 from Ch.3 (of the Scientific Basis) on the Carbon Cycle.  Lucky I occasionally file things in a sensible fashion.   Now, Table 3.2 gives 2 sets of estimates for the carbon density of different biomes (ecosystem types). Much may hinge on this, but a look at the pictures on Rukinga’s site suggests we’re talking about “tropical savannah and grassland” rather than “forest”.  And we’re proposing to pay to stop this turning into “desert or semi-desert” (I’m being generous here – “croplands” might be a more realistic comparison).  We can average the numbers for these biomes given by the IPCC:

– “tropical savanna & grassland”, according to the studies cited by the IPCC,  typically holds 29 tC/ha in the plants (to show how clever they are the IPCC scientists use MgC/ha, but a megagramme is just a big word for a tonne), both estimates being the same and (117+90)/2 = 103.5tC/ha in the soils, a total of 132.5 tC/ha.  This is in fact higher than the 160 tonnes [CO2eq] an acre – 109 tC/ha – estimated at Rukinga, though their figure makes some sense as, according to John Vidal, it’s “only a decade” since “cattle were banned”.

– “deserts and semi-deserts” typically hold, says the IPCC, (2+4)/2 = 3 tC/ha in the plants and (42+57)/2 = 49.5 tC/ha in the soils, a total of 52.5 tC/ha.

Subtracting these two figures suggests that, as a very rough estimate, we should expect to be paying the owners of Rukinga ranch for safeguarding about 132.5 – 52.5 = 80 tC/ha.

How much is this going to cost us, per tonne of carbon saved?

Annoyingly, carbon is traded in tCO2eq, so let’s convert back to that unit.  We can estimate that, very roughly, the continued existence of Rukinga will prevent the eventual emission of 80*44/12 = 293.3 – call it 300 tCO2eq/ha. (The original claim of 160 tonnes an acre translates to 400 tCO2eq/ha, so we’re not miles out!).

Now, an annual income of $2m is anticipated.  I’d dearly love to know how this is arrived at, but let’s see how much it is per tonne of “carbon” (CO2eq).  Multiplying Rukinga’s 32,000 hectares by 300 gives a total of 9.6 MtCO2eq saved.  Call it 10 million tonnes, what the hell!  The reckoning therefore is that maintaining a store of 1 tonne of CO2eq that would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere is worth $0.20 per year.  Bargain!

Or is it?

Let’s compare this to the price of carbon which right now is €13.40 equivalent to $13.40*1.4757 (the rate quoted by the FT at the moment) = $19.77438, call it $20/tCO2eq.

I have to say that the payment of, apparently, 1% (20 cents is 100th of $20) of the price of carbon per year is less than I anticipated.

There are 2 problems, though:

– the current carbon price is way too low.  It needs to rise to $100s/tonne (a typical car emits 125 gCO2/km, or would have to travel 8,000 km to emit 1 tonne!  Who’s going to change their driving habits for $20/8000 = 0.25 cents/km?).  Tying remuneration for preventing deforestation/degradation to the carbon price may therefore not necessarily be a great idea.

Further, Vidal notes:

“Rukinga is on the frontline of global deforestation: every month, dozens of large gangs of commercial charcoal-makers are caught cutting down trees and building crude fire pits to make cooking fuel for the port city of Mombasa 100 miles away.”

True, we have to get away from using wood-based fuel (even though it has become bizarrely virtuous in the UK), but one man’s REDD is another man’s sustainable harvesting of firewood; one man’s looter is another man’s indigenous person.  In other words, the REDD revenue is worth fighting over.  And wouldn’t we have more plant biomass if we had fewer elephants eating it all day?  Maybe we’d better introduce such income streams gradually so that we can deal with the problems.

– we need REDD all over the world for it to be effective.  How much would that cost?  Well, accurate estimates are hard to come by, but the world’s forests hold around as much carbon as the atmosphere – say 750GtC (my estimate of what could be emitted from plants and soils if we lose the lot – the 2001 IPCC report estimated total stored carbon in global ecosystems to be >2000 GtC, i.e. 2 TtC) or 2750, call it 2500 GtCO2eq.  At 20 cents/tCO2eq we’re talking about $500bn/year.  Hmm.  And if we put a realistic price on carbon – say 10 times the current price – then we’re already in credit crunch territory – trillions of dollars a year!

[This figure is so high I feel I should calculate it a different way as a check.  Rukinga’s 32,000 hectares (or 320 km2) is expected to yield $2m p.a.  But we need to protect billions of hectares (10s of millions of km2) from deforestation/degradation worldwide – say 50m km2 as a rough guess.  At $2m for 320 km2 Rukinga’s REDD costs $6,250/km2 to protect each year.  50m km2 will therefore cost $(50m * 6,250) = $312bn/year.  The discrepancy from $500bn is attributable to the fact that other areas of forest – think Indonesia, Congo, Amazon – store rather more carbon per km2 than Rukinga, which is not densely forested].

Now, I do happen to think we’re going to eventually have to pay these sorts of sums to protect natural carbon stores (“forests”), but this sort of money is not available right now.

It makes no sense to spend all the available money on protecting a few small areas of forest.   The problem is known in the trade as “leakage”.  Demand e.g. for timber, will simply move to areas outside REDD schemes.

The Rukinga case suggests at least 4 major issues with the bottom-up approach:

– leakage – a show-stopper;

– the up-front cost of estimating carbon content – and authenticating such estimates;

– too little cash to create enough schemes;

– the need to make an accommodation with land-users.

Surely what we should be doing is designing a global scheme that takes account of these problems from the outset?  Could it be that that is actually happening?

Global REDD: Copenhagen and all that

My first port of call to find out what is actually happening globally was Friends of the Earth. When I last gave my presentation “Save the Forests, Save the World” or whatever I called it that day, a woman in the audience was shaking her head vigorously while I spoke.  Certain cues in her appearance suggested she might be an FoE  stalwart.  Well, I’m a “Supporter” too (not very democratic are they, these NGOs?), and receive regular mailings.  I was curious to discover what I might have said that was so evil…

Soon I found an article, “Into the woods” by Henry Rummins, Earthmatters 74, autumn 2009, Friends of the Earth’s Newsletter (not apparently available online, though a rather more thorough FoE discussion is available here).

Rummins says:

“Government plans to preserve rainforests are a con…  There are much fairer alternatives – like local people deciding how to protect them”.

Dreamland, IMHOP.

First, sustainable forestry – e.g. removing certain trees or “timber that has fallen naturally” (which Rummins mentions) – IS degradation.  Fallen trees store carbon for decades and are one way it ends up in the soil.

Second, indigenous people have to make tough choices to raise money.  Did anyone else see that episode of the BBC’s “Into the Volcano” where they went to the village in Papua New Guinea?  The elders explained that they needed to pay for medical care and education, so felt under pressure to deal with the loggers.

Third, it’s simply not going to happen.  Governments and those who think they own land or rights over it now are not about to simply sign it over to someone else.

Some money is going to have to change hands.

I agree with FoE though, that tying REDD into the current (dysfunctional) carbon market is probably not going to work.

Next I tried the UN.  When in doubt go straight to the top, I say.  It turns out that bureaucracies have already been established.  But what’s the plan?

A few clicks later I found a page referring to something called “The Little REDD Book”.  And this document, dear reader, is where you will find the “32 proposals”.  But don’t download from the UN.  You need “The Little REDD+Book” from the Global Canopy Programme.

What a nightmare!

The chance of reaching agreement on a comprehensive REDD framework at Copenhagen seems small.  There are too many areas of disagreement.  Especially when all the energy is going into spats over reducing fossil-fuel emissions.

For what it’s worth, it seems to me that we need a two-pronged approach at this stage.  My cunning plan is that we need to:

(1) Keep as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible;

(2) Preserve as much as possible of the world’s natural stores of carbon, for which we can use the shorthand term “forests”.

Now, I don’t see much hope at all of a meaningful deal on emissions at Copenhagen, for inter alia the simple reason that I think the US is right.  There’s no point in simply continuing to move industrial emissions from one part of the world (the so-called “developed” countries) to another (China and other developing countries).

If I were the UNFCCC I’d use Copenhagen to try to make an agreement on REDD, and design an agenda to ensure the solution is global and comprehensive – the piecemeal approach which is evolving will cover nowhere near enough land to prevent “leakage”.

In particular, a few minutes thought will expose the fatal flaw of dividing the world into increasingly artificial groups of “developed” and “developing” countries. There’s plenty of forest we need to preserve in Russia, Canada, Europe, Japan and so on, even the US – and opportunities for reforestation in these countries.

After the Fairtrade coffee-break we might be ready to accept that a comprehensive solution to protect all the world’s forests will be impossible if we rely on deals with individual landowners.  We need to create a funding stream into one big kitty and from there pay out to everyone responsible for some forest.

Assuming the UN can silence the cacophony of vested interests for long enough to engage in some intelligent thought, the advantage of focusing on REDD would be twofold:

– it would provide a “quick win”.  We could all reconvene in a few years time with visible evidence of success.  I believe the deforestation juggernaut can be stopped in its tracks and left to rot on a half-built road to nowhere in the jungle.   The graphs of atmospheric CO2 increase would start to level off.

– we’d learn some lessons.  Maybe carbon-trading isn’t the best way to monetise carbon emissions or ecosystem services on a global scale.  Maybe carbon-trading will only be effective (the track record isn’t very good so far) within contained, delimited sectoral markets or geographic areas.

October 6, 2009

Better REDD than Dead

Filed under: Forests, Global warming, International climate deals — Tim Joslin @ 6:30 pm

Typical Guardian.  p.2 of today’s edition directs the reader to its website to read about John Vidal’s “look into plans to pay poor countries to protect their forests”. I resolved to get online as soon as I’d finished my coffee.  But the paper has sold itself short – the same content appears as a double-page spread in the print edition (p.22-23).  And very informative it is too (as far as it goes) – as I might have mentioned before, the issue could hardly be more important.

But what distresses me is the spin: “UN’s forest protection scheme at risk from organised crime, experts warn” in the online version, and “UN forest scheme is invitation to corruption, experts warn” in the print version.  [I’d really love to know how the Guardian determines the subtle differences between its online and print readership, choosing the most appropriate wording for these overlapping communities!].

It seems to me that the headlines mislead.  The real questions should be:

– Are we better off with REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries, i.e. the UN’s scheme) or without it?

– What are the weaknesses of the REDD mechanisms currently proposed?

– Is it possible to design a better REDD scheme?

Now, I’d say we’re in a desperate situation, forest-destruction wise.  As I explained way back, we need to reverse deforestation to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.  18 months later, the world seems slightly less in denial.  So any initiative that creates incentives to preserve what remains of the world’s forests is certainly worth supporting rather than undermining.

Let me emphasise the objective.  Our goal is simply to preserve the world’s forests.  It’s not to be “fair” – as I implied in an entirely different context earlier on, the world is not fair, and if we try to make it fair at the same time as solving global warming, well, then, we’re unlikely ever to solve any problems at all.

Summing up the criticisms of REDD as that it may be “unfair” is perhaps an oversimplification.  There appear to be two principle types of objection:

– the schemes may provide opportunities for fraud;

– money may not go to the right people.

These quite separate issues are conflated in some of the quotes in today’s Guardian.  But fraud clearly mainly includes “claiming credits for forests that do not exist”.  Clearly such fraud undermines REDD schemes, but hardly invalidates them.  If we’re not prepared to deal with frauds of this kind, then we may as well just give up.  Trees rarely walk and when they do, it’s a very slow process.  Satellites, for example, can be used to monitor forests.  It’s not rocket science.  Or rather, yes it is!

Rather more challenging is the problem of land rights.  Another article in today’s Guardian spread describes the problem:

“Landowners [in Papua New Guinea] claimed they had been forced to sign over the rights to their forests by ‘carbon cowboys’. The scandal is embarrassing because Papua New Guinea, which has a history of rampant, illegal logging, is leading world efforts to have Redd schemes backed at the UN climate change talks which culminate in Copenhagen in December.

Elsewhere, Redd projects are widely expected to reward political and commercial elites with billions of dollars of public money, with little or nothing reaching the communities who will be expected to protect the forests. In Indonesia, where 40 million people depend on forests, potential Redd projects are in limbo because much of Indonesia’s forests have never been surveyed, and land ownership is fiercely disputed.”

Now let’s consider the logic of the situation.  It’s clear from the quote that there are  already land rights problems – REDD isn’t causing them.  The problem is that local people – who might help to preserve forests – are being dispossessed by various outside groups in order to exploit their land by destroying the forests.  REDD, it seems, might lead to the same or other outsiders expropriating funds due to local people for not destroying their forests.  We’re better off in two distinct ways:

– the forests are preserved;

– as a result, it might eventually be possible to correct the financial situation.  REDD will need to continue indefinitely.   Governments and courts can in principle resolve conflicting land claims and ensure future REDD income is allocated accordingly.

The article does say “potential REDD projects are in limbo” because of land disputes.  Sorry, why can’t funds be held pending the resolution of such disputes? – giving an all sides in a dispute an incentive to preserve the forest, in case they eventually get awarded the accrued funds.  It’s just a matter of setting up the necessary bureaucracy.  OK, not a trivial task maybe, but not impossible either.

Most important, though, land ownership disputes are a problem however you try to preserve forests.  If governments are unable to protect forests either by ensuring the owners or (the term I prefer) custodians can be paid (or otherwise rewarded) to not allow them to be cut down, and/or by edict, outlawing destruction of the forest (for which the government itself would require an incentive), then it is simply impossible to prevent deforestation.

The problems of land ownership and the treatment of forest peoples certainly make REDD schemes more difficult to implement.  But REDD doesn’t cause these problems. They have to be dealt with separately.

We should press ahead with REDD.


That was the good news.  Now for the bad news.

There are massive problems, with REDD schemes as currently proposed.  The schemes are too cumbersome and piecemeal, and the principal of “avoided emissions” is logically flawed.

Consider one scheme described in the Guardian:

“British conservationist Rob Dodwell and California-based dotcom millionaire Mike Korchinsky, the ranch’s two main shareholders, say they have spent $400,000 (£251,000) over six months measuring Rukinga’s trees and getting their Redd application validated. Despite the deep concerns of many observers about how open to fraud Redd projects are, the pair are determined to show it can be done properly.

The carbon stored has been provisionally estimated at around 160 tonnes an acre, which at the present world price of carbon could earn Rukinga nearly $2m a year — a big return for land bought only 10 years ago for around $10 an acre.”

I can’t help mentioning that 160 tonnes an acre is a lot – perhaps it should be per hectare [especially as Rukinga is earlier in the article described as “32,000 hectares” – remember this is a daily newspaper and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, institutional innumeracy is endemic in the sector].  Anyway, my point is: who said this has to be an exact science?  No one.  More to the point, it doesn’t.  No need to thrash ourselves with this particular rod.  This problem is tied in with the piecemeal approach.  If we pay for preserving every bit of forest on the planet (and the second D in REDD is a shame – forest doesn’t know whether it’s in a “developing” country or not), then we can just use rough estimates of the carbon per hectare.  In any case, carbon storage is not the only ecosystem service we might want to reward, so it’s a bit daft to get anal about it.

But why would we want to “pay for preserving every bit of forest on the planet”?  Surely we just need to preserve the bits someone is about to chop down?  When I put it like that, it sounds a bit stupid, doesn’t it?  Yeap, it’s our old friend, or perhaps I should say enemy, displacing the problem.  If we pay the owners of Rukinga to preserve their trees, then, yes, we have helped ensure the future of a wildlife sanctuary, but we haven’t reversed total net global deforestation.  And, unfortunately, that’s what we need to do.

I’ll endeavour to describe a better scheme another time (I have a presentation on the subject which I’m slowly writing up).  Here’s a clue, though: if we do way with the rod we’ve made for our back of demanding accurate estimates of carbon stored in forests, then it follows that we can do away with another rod we’ve created.  It makes no sense to include REDD carbon in fossil-fuel carbon emissions trading schemes.

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid, as Jack Lang (the Cambridge entrepreneur not the French politician or the Australian politician!) is fond of saying.

April 3, 2009

Save the forests, save the world, part 2

Filed under: Forests, Global warming, Science — Tim Joslin @ 6:36 pm

There must be something in the air in the spring, because it seems to be the time of year when I gain the energy to review a bit of GW science. It is almost exactly a year ago that I wrote briefly about how difficult it is going to be to prevent dangerous climate change (CO2 > 450ppm) if we don’t increase the amount of carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere (shorthand: “forests”).

I’m in the process of preparing a presentation provisionally titled “Save the Forests: Fixing Global Warming for Dummies”. So I suppose it is serendipitous that my New Scientist magazine (dated 4th April 2009) fell open a couple of hours ago at a Fred Pearce article titled “Keeping the planet’s heart pumping“. I say I “suppose” it is serendipitous, because the article presages some of the ideas I was going to include in my presentation. I guess the reinforcement of my point by the publication of this article outweighs the reduction in its originality.

I’ve started to get a little ratty when anyone suggests that reforestation may be an ineffective policy. The problem is that many people realise that carbon offsetting is a sham. But the principle that we should preserve and increase the area of natural forest and preserve its integrity is absolutely correct. Right policy, wrong financial instrument (and in the case of monoculture plantations, poor execution). I intend to go into this point in more detail, and even have a title for the blog post (I’m telling you now in case I never get round to this one): “Don’t throw the forest out with the trees!”. Play on words is for children. Real men play on idioms. And eat quips!

Fred reports on the research of Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva of the St Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute. See here for a precis.

Gorshkov and Makarieva point out that forests generate rising air (low pressure) not just because they are dark (absorbing heat, expanding air, making it less dense and causing it to rise) but also because of what they call the “biotic pump”. That is, the trees pump moisture into the air (cooling themselves) which condenses at higher altitude. When the resulting water drops fall through the air column (my interpretation) – even to the ground as rain – the airmass becomes less dense and rises. Condensation not only reduces volume, but also releases heat, again causing airmasses to expand and rise. Rising air draws up air below it and other air rushes in from the sides and even from above. This process happens on (within reason) all scales of airmass. The effect can be clearly seen in billowing cumulus clouds. The early part of “A Cloudspotter’s Guide” describes the experience of a parachutist in a storm cloud, alternately falling and being carried up in rising pockets of air within the cloud. I don’t see how this could be explained without something like the “biotic pump”.

What really strikes me about the article, though, is that NS reports that Makarieva claims that:

“Nobody has looked at the pressure drop caused by water vapour turning to water.”

And the article – written, remember, by Fred Pearce, who has been reporting environmental issues and GW in particular for decades – goes on to note that:

“…because forest models do not include the biotic pump, it is impossible to say what wiping the Amazon off the map would mean for rainfall worldwide.”

I’ve recently been wondering whether our understanding of the climate is quantitatively strong, but qualitatively weak. Too much reliance on those computer models – remember, it’s garbage in, garbage out.

Now, the climate and weather models should be foolproof because they are held to rely on the laws of physics. But if they fail to capture accurately the process of lowering of air pressure due to the condensation of water vapour they could, I suppose, be systematically in error.

Even if this mechanism is implicit in the models, and it’s just the humans who fail to recognise it (quite feasible if the models correctly implement the laws of physics), they definitely fail (because they don’t implement feedbacks from climate to vegetation) to capture the positive feedback that causes forests to spread across continents. That is:
1. Moist forests create low pressure air masses (the rising air may directly result in rainfall over the forest and surrounding areas, in particular inland);
2. Drawing in moist air from the ocean (hence the importance of coastal forests emphasised by Gorshkov and Makarieva);
3. Creating airflow (at least seasonally) from the coast;
4. Providing rainfall to maintain and increase the area of the forest.

So, once established, a rainforest is self-sustaining, and indeed will tend to grow until it fills the continent at least over a latitudinal band or some other process or natural obstacle (e.g. mountain range) keeps it in check. Deforestation creates the reverse feedback. Once a tipping point is reached, the drying-out of a forest may become unstoppable.

I find it hard to believe that Gorshkov and Makarieva’s idea is new. Indeed, some commenters on the NS article note antecedents, notably something called the Permaculture movement, a 1970s idea of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, though the “biotic pump” doesn’t seem at first glance to be central to the Permaculture philosophy. But NS also reports “that current theory doesn’t explain clearly how the lowlands in continental interiors maintain wet climates.”

I’m rather puzzled, since I’d always assumed that this mechanism explained cloud formation, storms, hurricanes, monsoons and why there is no forest in North Africa and air pressure there is predominantly high. I thought the problem was communication, or rather the lack of it, by the scientists. If Fred Pearce’s article can be taken at face value, it seems that the problem may instead be one of understanding, or rather the lack of it.

March 5, 2009

Greening some Greenwash Debunking

Filed under: Biomass, Forests, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 10:51 am

Oops, I was going to title this post “Greening some Greenwash”, then I realised that it’s the response to the greenwash that I object to.

I came across an interesting feature in the Indy this morning. It’s presented in a rather annoying fashion as you have to step through each page, rather than scroll down to what you want. A bit like in those PowerPoint presentations with bells, whistles and moving graphics everywhere, the technology has clearly taken over.

The feature became even more interesting when I got to point number 8: Ancient forests must be axed (sic). Red flags to bulls and all that. There’s a picture of some trees and the writer explains:

“It isn’t picturesque but it is practical. It sounds ruthless, but wheezy old trees can’t suck up the carbon like they used to. A tree absorbs roughly 1,500 tonnes of CO2 until it reaches 55 years of age, after which absorption slows. And when that tree decomposes, it belches all the CO2 back out again. So although the results won’t be terribly scenic, if we were utterly rational, our trees should get the axe after reaching their CO2-hoovering peak. The wood can then be used to make furniture, houses and many of the products we currently manufacture from less sustainable materials. We should then plant fresh seedlings to farm.”

No, no, no!

Let’s try and explain this in baby-talk.

1. There’s carbon in the atmosphere, principally in the form of a gas called carbon dioxide (CO2).

2. Trees take up CO2 from the atmosphere and incorporate the carbon in organic matter: leaves, roots, trunk, branches, twigs, bits of these things incorporated into the soil, as well as into the things which eat the above and into the things which eat them. For simplicity, let’s just say they take the carbon from CO2 and turn it into wood.

3. Now, in the case of the existence of a forest compared to its non-existence, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is reduced by an amount equivalent to the carbon stored in wood in the forest.

4. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere does not depend on how quickly the trees are taking up carbon. How quickly trees are taking up carbon affects only the rate of change in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, not its actual level.

5. Once a forest is fully grown it can hold no more carbon. Strictly, this maximum is reached when the carbon released by decay of old trees is matched by the uptake of carbon by the new trees which naturally spring up to replace them.

6. Chopping down ancient trees in order to plant new trees will not, therefore, lead to more storage of carbon. It will lead to less because the fallen old trees will start rotting and will release carbon faster than the tiny new trees can take it up.

7. The writers suggest that the wood from the ancient trees can be used to make furniture and so on. That’s true. But it will not keep carbon out of the atmosphere if old wooden furniture is thrown out and replaced by the new furniture. The old furniture will start rotting (or be burnt) as soon as it leaves the benign environment of our dining rooms.

8. Sure, we could replace some plastic in our homes with wood, but we have to understand the principle: the minimum amount of carbon in the atmosphere will occur when the maximum amount of carbon is stored in wood. This will be when everyone is using wood as a material where possible, and where all the forests are full grown, not when they’re tiny growing “fresh seedlings”.

9. Forests in general store much more wood than buildings (which may incorporate wood in furniture or otherwise) on the same land. And forests collectively take up more land than buildings. It follows that the main determinants of how much carbon is stored in the forest to wood-product system – and is therefore not in the form of CO2 in the atmosphere – are (a) the amount of carbon stored per unit area of forest and (b) the total area of forest. As I’ve explained, this will be at a maximum in mature forests.

10. So leave those ancient trees alone.

March 28, 2008

Save the forests, save the world

It’s amazing what you can do with Excel. I thought I’d have another quick look before breakfast at my 450ppm stabilisation scenario (hey, kids, you can play this game at home!).

Here’s what I was referring to yesterday (all numbers approximate):

450ppm CO2 stabilisation scenario

To some extent I’m being optimistic. The 4AR mostly refers to scenarios that we would not now countenance as we’ve come out of denial over the last few years (I suggest they review their approach for the next report, 5AR). But if we look at the Scientific Basis, page 791 (I kid you not – strictly I should also be using a 3 line reference to the chapter – 10, section 4.1 as it happens), we see some discussion of stabilisation scenarios. The IPCC suggest a higher peak in fossil fuel emissions (about 12GtC/yr compared to the 9GtC I’ve shown), but with a steeper reduction. Their scenario allows 596GtC over the 21st century, whereas I came up with 566GtC. But the key point is that the IPCC also calculate some scenarios with positive carbon cycle feedbacks – that is, when we listen to the science and assume that warming will cause ecosystems to release carbon, or in actual fact merely to take it up more slowly than at present – and in these scenarios taking account of carbon cycle feedbacks we are “allowed” to emit 105 to 300GtC less. That is, even an aggressive scenario to stabilise CO2 at 450ppm relies on a get-out-of-jail-free card.

A more rigorous analysis – I would next separate out land use change (deforestation) from the fertilisation effect altogether – is unlikely to give a different conclusion, because the sanity check (total fossil fuel emissions) succeeds. This simple spreadsheet, adding together the main parts of the the carbon cycle is compatible with the sophisticated models cited by the IPCC. And it shows that, at first approximation (as the scientists say) we have to manage both components we can influence – fossil fuel burning and land uptake of CO2.

The critical point is that, if we want to save the planet, we’ve got to make sure that land carbon uptake over the next century – by natural ecosystems, such as forests, wetland and grassland – increases, not decreases. And if we plough them up and plant even more crops, then they will release carbon for a while and then store a roughly constant amount.

This is the macro reason why promoting biofuels is a really, really bad idea. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a worse policy response to the threat of global warming.

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