in Brazil

REDD myth no. 3: To address climate change we have to reduce emissions from deforestation

Brazil forest fire“We have to reduce emissions from deforestation if we’re to prevent catastrophic climate change,” WWF argues on its website. At a first glance, it seems like a no-brainer. Forests store an awful lot of carbon. When forests are cleared for cattle ranching, or to make way for oil palm plantations, the carbon dioxide goes back into the atmosphere.

WWF explains that “We’re working to get a fair, workable REDD+ scheme developed globally.” But if REDD is a carbon offsetting mechanism, it will not reduce emissions – the emissions will be transfered from one place to another, allowing the corporations or governments that buy REDD credits to continue polluting.

Just to be clear. I’m not making an argument in favour of deforestation. There are many good reasons for reducing deforestation. Forests play a large role in regulating the climate and on rainfall patterns. They are home to indigenous peoples and enormous biodiversity. But for REDD to work, tropical forests have to continue to store carbon. That means stopping deforestation from loggers and cattle ranchers and stopping climate change.

Forests are under serious threat, not just from loggers and cattle ranchers. Climate change is a huge threat to the world’s forests. Unless we address climate change, the world’s forests will tip from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. And the only way to address climate change is by keeping 80% of fossil fuels in the ground.

“Earth’s forests are dying”

In November 2015, Dr Reese Halter appeared on Australia’s ABC radio programme, “The Science Show”. (Hat tip to Scott Poynton.) Halter says,

Frighteningly, Earth’s forests are dying on every forested continent, from warming temperatures and associated insect infestations, prolonged heatwaves, intense wildfires, and vicious droughts.

Amazon rainforest on fire

Halter refers to a 2009 report produced by the International Union of Forest Research, which explains why it is crucial that we do not cross the 2°C warming threshold. The report explains why such an increase in temperature on the biodiversity of forests would be disastrous:

According to the IPCC, roughly 20–30% of vascular plants and higher animals on the globe are estimated to be at an increasingly high risk of extinction as temperatures increase by 2–3°C above pre-industrial levels. The estimates for tropical forests exceed these global averages. It is very likely that even more modest losses in biodiversity would cause consequential changes in ecosystem services.

If the world’s temperature increases by more than 2.5°C, forests will lose their carbon storage capacity:

Several projections indicate significant risks that current carbon regulating services will be entirely lost, as land ecosystems turn into a net source of carbon beyond a global warming of 2.5°C (upper stable scenarios and beyond) or more relative to preindustrial levels.

IUFRO also produced a Policy Brief, which included this key message:


The Amazon carbon sink is declining

A paper published last year in Nature magazine titled, “Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink”, found that this process has already started.

In an article in The Conversation, two of the paper’s authors explain that,

Tree mortality rates have surged by more than a third since the mid-1980s, while growth rates have stalled over the past decade. This had a significant impact on the Amazon’s capacity to take-up carbon.

The Amazon is losing its capacity to store carbon and, if climate change continues, the Amazon will change from carbon sink to carbon source. REDD relies on the rainforests remaining as a carbon sink. If the sink starts leaking, we’re in big trouble. And if the carbon stored in the Amazon and other tropical forests is traded against continued emissions from fossil fuels, the emissions will be doubled.

Amazon fires from space

Amazon droughts and fires

The Amazon has suffered a series of droughts in recent years, as Dr Reese Halter points out:

  • In 2005, 1.9 million square kilometres experienced intense drought and winds that blew down half a billion mature trees. Later that year, a one-in-100-year drought event prevented trees from absorbing 1.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. And, as the dead, blown-down trees decomposed, they released 5 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases.
  • In 2007, an extreme drought in southeast Amazonia created epic wildfires, 10 times more than the average, an area equivalent to burning 1 million World Cup Brazilian soccer fields.
  • In 2010, a subcontinental drought enveloped 3.5 million square kilometres of the Amazon Basin, a gigantic swathe of mature forest died and released 8 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, or what the United States spends in a year.

WWF has five guiding principles for REDD. The first relates to climate: “REDD+ demonstrably contributes to greenhouse gas emissions reductions”. If the forests die and release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as they decompose, REDD will demonstrably not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

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  1. Boggles my mind how WWF gets away with nonsense. Are they beyond reproach?

  2. It is a real dilemma. Hard choices and no easy /right answer. Local context, as opposed to global agreements/wishes, will dictate the outcome.