The Future of Forests Initiative
Forests form a basis for life on Earth. They take in CO2 and release oxygen, purify water, regulate hydrologic cycles, and provide food, shelter and medicines. But most importantly, they are critically important for mitigating the impacts of climate change. Without them, human life on Earth would not be possible.
And yet, in 2011, the International Year of Forests, the world’s forests are still rapidly declining: The Global Biodiversity Outlook of UNEP estimates that 60,000km2 of primary forest are lost every year[i], and the very future of forests may be at risk due to new and emerging threats.
The 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) last December urged countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and enhance carbon stocks through REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). It is broadly recognized, including by the FCCC COP, that such efforts will only be successful if the direct and underlying causes of forest loss are properly identified and addressed. As an initial response to this call, Global Forest Coalition published a summary report of over 30 workshops on the underlying causes of forest loss in December 2010[ii]. According to the conclusions of this report, the causes of deforestation and forest degradation are intimately linked to the question of who controls the forests. Studies have demonstrated that recognition of Indigenous Peoples' rights and community governance over forests is important not only for the social and economic well-being of the community members, especially women, but also for the forests themselves.[iii]
Climate Mitigation Schemes Driving Deforestation and Forest Degradation
Major advances have been made during the past decades in the field of community forest governance, and the recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their forests. It is now broadly recognized amongst most international forest and climate policy makers that Indigenous rights and community governance are cornerstones of equitable and effective forest policies. However, there is still a significant gap between the formal recognition of people’s rights, and practice.
Deforestation and Land Grabs
Moreover, two of the main underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation identified by GFC in our report were the rapidly increasing demand for both wood and land—both for natural resources and for carbon offsets. These trends are triggering a devastating land grab that is most severely impacting some of the very communities that have successfully protected their forested lands throughout the generations. Several climate mitigation policies are at the heart of this increasing demand for land and wood.
Deforestation and Agrofuels
Agrofuels (industrial scale biofuels), are still promoted as a climate change mitigation policy despite the dubious record they have both in terms of emissions savings, and their contribution to the global food crisis. It is now also widely understood that they are an important cause of deforestation. In countries like Indonesia, the increased demand for palm oil has triggered significant additional deforestation and huge emissions of greenhouse gases. But the impacts of agrofuels on forests are not just direct. The indirect land use changes caused by agrofuels are at least as significant as the direct impacts. As agrofuel production replaces food production, it drives communities into poverty and triggers an expansion of the agricultural frontier into forests and other undisturbed ecosystems.[iv]
Deforestation and Wood-Based Electricity Production
The relatively new trend of producing electricity and other fuels with woody crops is already having a significant impact on forests. As pointed out in Science Magazine[v], the projected increase in demand for wood-based electricity, in part due to the fact that it is being wrongly promoted as a carbon-neutral energy source, is one of the greatest emerging threats to forests and could result in the complete conversion of native forests and grasslands to bioenergy plantations by 2060.
Wood-Based Bioenergy and Increases in Monoculture Timber Plantations, Including GE Trees
Rapidly increasing demand for wood-based bioenergy is providing a major incentive for increased and intensified logging, undoing the limited progress that has been made in the field of low-impact logging and sustainable forest management over the past decades. It is also driving the expansion of large-scale monoculture tree plantations. As tree plantations provide very little employment per hectare of land, they trigger the expansion of the agricultural frontier as well. In the future, the timber industry intends these plantations to be dominated by trees genetically engineered with specific profitable (but potentially disastrous) traits. In the Southern US, for example, GE tree companies project sales of half a billion GE cold-tolerant eucalyptus trees every year—just to feed electricity production. International Paper projects that use of fast growing GE eucalyptus trees in the Southern U.S. could double the acreage of monoculture timber plantations there from 42 million acres to 84 million acres.
Deforestation and the New Bioeconomy: Emergence of Dangerous New Technologies
The plan to supplement fossil fuels with trees and other cellulosic sources to create everything from chemicals to plastics, to fuels and textiles is being promoted as a new “bioeconomy” under the umbrella of climate mitigation. However, this transformation involves the use of potentially dangerous technologies such as genetic engineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology. [vi] The risks to forests associated with the release of these modified organisms, or their accidental escape into the environment have not been assessed. What is known is that looking toward trees to replace fossil fuels in the manufacture of everything from chemicals to jet fuel, will have substantial impacts on forests, due to the massive quantities of feedstock required—especially when considered in the context of all of the existing demands on forests.
Lack of Cumulative Risk Assessment
Despite these significant risks and these clear contradictions in climate change and forest policies, there is no broad effort at this time to comprehensively identify and analyze the cumulative impacts of these pressures on forests—as well as on communities or biodiversity that relies on them.
The Future of Forests Initiative was launched during the International Year of Forests with the goal building a global and diverse alliance of experts to develop a broad and deep analysis of the status of forests worldwide, use it to raise widespread awareness of the underlying causes of deforestation and degradation—including the impacts of climate change policies—and begin the process of creating effective strategies to address them.
[i] Global analysis of the protection status of the world’s forests, http://www.unep-wcmc.org/protected_areas/pdf/Global%20Forest%20Protection.pdf
[ii] Getting to the Roots: Underlying Causes of Deforestation and Forest Degradation, and Drivers of Forest Restoration, www.globalforestcoalition.org/img/userpics/File/REDD/Report-Getting-to-the-roots.pdf
[iii] The Munden Project: “REDD and Forest Carbon: Market-Based Critique and Recommendations” http://www.rightsandresources.org/documents/files/doc_2215.pdf
[iv] Corbey Commission: “Constraining the need for more land:
Managing crop production, land use, biofuels and iLUC,” http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=%22corbey+commission%22+biofuels&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8
[v] Wise, et. al., “Implications of Limiting CO2 Concentrations for Land Use and Energy,” http://www.sciencemag.org/content/324/5931/1183.abstract
[vi] ETC Group: “The New Biomassters: Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods,” http://www.etcgroup.org/en/node/5232
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