October 2011

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By Mike Oatham

The image of tropical rainforests as cool green cathedrals teeming with countless plants and animals is often invoked to justify efforts to prevent vast tracts being destroyed. But there is another reason why the average world citizen should be concerned about degradation and destruction of these temples to biodiversity. That reason is global climate change.

Most people concede that climate change is occurring but the most heated debate is over whether humans are responsible and what should be done. Many governmental and international organizations are trying to mitigate against extreme climate change. With predictive global climate models run on super-computers, a clearer idea of what is in store for the planet is emerging. The models indicate that boundaries of biomes and agriculture will shift with global climate change, and it is likely that many species will become extinct and that human society will be disrupted, with starvation and conflict in some parts of the world and severe economic recession in others. Researchers suggest that the extent of disruption to natural and human ecosystems can be moderated if greenhouse gases such as carbon are released into the atmosphere at a slower rate and if carbon is removed from the atmosphere at a faster rate than it is at the moment. A key to these two critical processes are tropical rainforests.

Tropical rainforests play an integral role in the global carbon cycle as has been demonstrated in a recent article in the journal “Science” by Yude Pan of the US Dept of Agriculture. Dr. Pan and other scientists compiled and analyzed data from long-term growth studies from forests around the globe, including tropical forests, and found that they were the best at stripping carbon from the atmosphere of all terrestrial ecosystems.

They found that the main area of carbon accumulation were the temperate forests of North America and Asia that are being allowed to regenerate, but they found that tropical forests were also taking up carbon enough to balance the amount of carbon being released in tropical forest degradation If the rate of deforestation and degradation of tropical forests could be reduced (currently the area the size of a football field every hour) then a large source of carbon being released into the atmosphere would be removed and tropical forests would act as a huge sponge soaking up carbon from the atmosphere and reducing the severity of global climate change.

As far back as 1992, governments agreed to try and slow down global climate change this way under the Kyoto Protocol. Trinidad has one of the few projects in the world under this protocol, the World Bank-funded Nariva Swamp Restoration initiative which is a collaborative project between the EMA, Forestry Division and The UWI. This project aims to reforest large areas of swamp forests cleared illegally in the 1990s, and in so doing, capture tons of carbon from the atmosphere into the woody trunks of the restored trees. It is also providing important research information to refine the accurate carbon accounting involved in these sorts of projects which will be necessary in the developing global market for carbon credits. At the moment there is no legal obligation for carbon emitters to offset their carbon released by buying credits from carbon absorbers but a niche market has sprung up where companies voluntarily offset their carbon released. This has become an important marketing tool in some countries where consumers can select companies that can show zero or negative release of carbon into the atmosphere. Many airlines and car rental companies now offer a carbon offset fee that customers can pay voluntarily. Ultimately the global society will have to make it compulsory for carbon emitters to pay carbon absorbers if the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere is to be controlled. This is being planned and implemented in European countries and with great controversy in Australia.\

As the effects of global climate change make themselves increasingly felt, the urgency of finding ways to moderate these impacts will increase. Tropical forests will form a vital component of these mechanisms and the potential of forests of this region to earn income from these new markets is great. However, management of those forests to keep them intact needs to be strict, and creeping degradation and deforestation must be eliminated. It is a challenge for the whole society.

Dr Mike Oatham is a Plant Ecology Lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences, UWI, St. Augustine.