Sunday, December 13, 2009

The value of natural areas

Ecological systems are likely to be extensively rearranged by climate change - there are already extinctions that have been tied to global warming, as well as observed modifications of biogeographic patterns, natural selection, rates of productivity, fire regimes, community composition and more.

The linkage between climate and ecosystems has great potential also to be a positive one, since forests particularly are a major reservoir of carbon and can mitigate some emissions - as long as they are kept intact. That's why major attention in Copenhagen is being paid to proposals regarding the UNFCCC program REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. Changing landcover, such as deforestation, is responsible for about 20% of current total CO2 emissions - which is how Indonesia & Brazil make 3rd and 4th on the list of largest greenhouse gas emitting countries (after China & the US, where emissions are tied mainly to burning fossil fuels).

Because the design of REDD is on-going (and evolving into REDD+), there is much debate about how it will actually be implemented, and who it will be benefit. Groups such as Global Witness, the Rainforest Action Network, and Greenpeace are pushing for REDD to strongly protect and restore biodiversity, rather than pose as a front for commercial forestry - particularly in the form of forest plantations. Industrial forest advocates argue that because plantations are fast growing, they rapidly absorb carbon, in addition to producing timber. But plantations are typically monocultures, and have limited biodiversity or ecological value compared to those of natural forests. Some fear that a poorly-designed REDD could result in perverse incentives to actually clear primary forest for plantations.

Besides environmental organizations, many of the indigenous rights groups present at Copenhagen are holding out hope that REDD, if properly implemented, will benefit them since their traditional livelihoods are centered around living off large intact natural areas like rainforests. Woods Hole Research Center has been working with COICA in the Amazon to use REDD to help preserve indigenous lifestyles, while central African rainforests are being assessed and monitored under REDD by groups such as IIASA.

Speaking at COP15, Bob Watson argued that natural area conservation can produce a win-win-win: mitigating atmospheric carbon, allowing local communities to adapt to the changing climate, and preserving biodiversity. All are fundamental for efforts to deal with climate change, and thus much is riding on REDD being successful.

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