REDDucing the Effects of Climate Change
It’s been a month after COP 15, the UN Climate Change conference that was supposed to give the world a new system for reducing carbon emissions.
A month to reflect, regroup, and respond to this reporter’s questions about what happened, and what didn’t, in Copenhagen.
From Woods Hole to Copenhagen
Tracy Johns is a research associate and policy advisor at the Woods Hole Research Center who focuses on the role of forests in stabilizing the world’s climate. She is an advisor to several countries on the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degredation (REDD) initiative, intended to create a carbon trading system that would adequately compensate countries that do not cut their remaining forests.
Having attended the last five COPs (Conference Of Parties), Ms. Johns said that the negotiations in Copenhagen, by comparison, were chaotic. Thousands of people from official delegations, NGO’s, and protest movements, crowded into a noisy meeting hall. It was difficult to find out where negotiations were taking place, even those related to REDD. When a delegation of African nations walked out of talks on carbon credits, she said, the conference really broke down.
With the REDD initiative dependent on the overall treaty, the process is stalled for now. Ms. Johns said she can sympathize with the African and developing nations, which are likely to feel the most deleterious effects of climate change, and yet are not responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions. However, she said, the stalled negotiations do not help anyone.
The Copenhagen Accord was eventually drafted by the US, China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which other nations did not adopt. Because the UN Climate Change treaties must be adopted by consensus (remember the stalled Kyoto Protocol?) that means that there is no blueprint going forward. But, Ms. Johns said, there is still a lot that countries, especially the US, can do to reduce carbon emissions on a domestic level.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Rainforests have been dubbed the “lungs of the world” for their ability to “inhale” carbon dioxide (CO2) and “exhale” oxygen (O2), a well-known chemical exchange that sustains our every breath. In this way, trees are able to store or “sequester” large amounts of CO2, one of the critical greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.
But as trees are clear-cut for lumber or to make way for soybean plantations or cattle ranches, much of that carbon sequestered in trees is released back into the atmosphere. In addition, the trees are no longer able to inhale the atmospheric CO2 that is increasing in concentration each year. From Brazil to Gabon to Indonesia, deforestation is responsible for 12 to 18 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, said Ms. Johns.
“We will not be able to avoid the devastating effects of climate change without stopping deforestation,” she said. “Forests are a vital piece of the puzzle.”
In working out the jigsaw of economics versus the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the REDD program aims to put a value on forests that are removing CO2 from the atmosphere every day, free of charge. Not only will this give developing nations a monetary incentive to protect their remaining forests, it will encourage consumers to make responsible choices, Ms. Johns said.
A fair trade?
While her focus is on the global carbon credit market, provisions in the Waxman-Markey bill– passed last June by the House of Representatives– allow companies to purchase carbon “0ffsets” for their emissions by contibuting to reforestation efforts or rainforest conservation, both in the US and abroad, Ms. Johns said. This initiative could make the US the largest carbon trading market in the world, she added, since the European Union does not allow REDD credits.
“As the legislative process moves forward, most of the bills being discussed include pretty strong pieces that wold allow a REDD to happen,” she said. “But the numbers President Obama has announced are far below our goals.”
In her work with some of the agricultural stakeholders in Brazil, for example, Ms. Johns has found that they would gladly find alternatives to cutting down the rainforest, but their practices reflect global demand for cheap beef and soybeans.
“One of the reasons why climate change legislation is important is that we’re not paying for the cost of pollution. If we understood the costs, it’s much cheaper to consume sustainably,” she pointed out.
“It’s got to be a collaborative effort between consumers and providers. Without a change in consumption practices, there will be no incentive to change.”
What can you do?
While forests in the US Northeast enjoy a fair amount of protection, Ms. Johns said people living here can have a part in reducing deforestation. She encourages us to do a little research to learn about the origins of products, and make an effort to support industries that use sustainable practices.
- The Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability is one website that makes it easier to find (and verify) eco-certified products.
- One common sense tip in regard to forests would be to eliminate paper-based products like paper plates from your shopping list, and in the case of necessities like toilet paper, purchasing a post-consumer recycled brand.
- Shop locally for “green” building and household products at the “G” Green Design Center in Mashpee Commons.