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REDDheads: Norman Myers and his 200 million hectares of tree plantations

In the previous post in the “REDDheads” series, about the people behind REDD, REDD-Monitor looked at Freeman Dyson’s thought experiment in the mid-1970s about planting vast areas with trees to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

In 1991, British environmentalist Norman Myers picked up Dyson’s idea with a proposal for a “massive tree-planting programme in the humid tropics”. Myers considered the humid tropics to be “by far the best place for fast-growing tree plantations”, because of the year-round warmth and moisture there.

“Reforestation [sic] on a suitable scale in the humid tropics–accompanied of course by measures to halt deforestation–could eventually serve to sequester carbon in amounts significant for our efforts to counter the greenhouse effect.”

Myers considers two questions. First how much carbon is emitted to the atmosphere from tropical forests, and “how much additional carbon would be retained in their biotic sinks if tropical deforestation were to be halted?” Second, how much atmospheric carbon could be soaked up and stored in tree plantations in the tropics.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Myers to think about the people living in the areas of his proposed plantations, or where they will go when their farmland is covered by fast-growing tree monocultures. Instead, he talks about vast areas of “deforested lands”, “degenerate scrublands”, “wasted lands”, that “have not been taken for permanent settlement by human communities”.

An area equivalent to one-third the size of Brazilian Amazonia would be enough, Myers estimates, or two million square kilometres. Such an area, he writes, “should be available without too much difficulty”. This area, according to Myers’ calculations would remove three billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. (Or as he puts it, an “overall reduction of carbon emissions” of three billion tonnes.)

Myers notes with approval the way that between 1970 and 1985 pulp and paper giant Aracruz had more than doubled the rate of growth of its eucalyptus plantations in Brazil. And he suggests that with genetically engineered trees, “it should eventually be possible to double productivity”.

Myers acknowledges the problems with monoculture plantations. “One need not envisage vast tree plantations stretching from one horizon to another,” he writes. Instead, Myers suggested that his proposed tree plantations, “should primarily and most productively be accomplished through many millions of small-scale woodlots, at village and farm level, planted around homesteads, as intercroppings, along farm perimeters, as windbreaks, along paths and roads, and in a multitude of similar mini-modes.”

Myers is no longer talking about uninhabited wasted lands:

“If there are 2 billion farming people in the humid tropics and an average family size is six persons, this works out to 333 million such families. So every family would have to plant 42 trees per year. If only, say, half of all families could be persuaded to join in the campaign, then each family would find itself having to plant 84 trees per year–no great task.

Myers estimates the cost to be US$80 billion. Spread over 10 years, the annual cost would be “only $8 billion”. He argues that tropical countries “have not yet undertaken tree-planting activities of sufficient scale is partially explained by sheer shortage of funds”.

Myers writes that the funding would provide an incentive to stop deforestation – this is the principle behind REDD:

“[A] sum of $8 billion flowing each year into tropical-forest countries would be seven times more than current funding for tropical forestry provided by the Tropical Forestry Action Plan. Since it would presumably be supplied only to those countries that make substantive efforts to curb deforestation, it would offer greatly enhanced incentive for tropical forest countries to get to final grips with deforestation.”

Towards the end of his paper, Myers refers to a tree planting project in Guatemala:

“[A] Connecticut, U.S.A., utility, Applied Energy Services, is building a power plant which will emit 105 million t of carbon during its 40-year life. To compensate, the corporation is funding the planting of 52 million trees in 1000 km2 of Guatemala.”

More on this project in the next post in the REDDheads series.

This post is part of a series based on a report I wrote in 2017 for the German NGO Stiftung Asienhaus. Download the report here: “REDDheads: The people behind REDD and the climate scam in Southeast Asia”.


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