Tuesday, July 31, 2012

We Can Reforest the Earth

Protecting the 10 billion acres of remaining forests on earth and replanting many of those already lost are both essential for restoring the earth’s health. Since 2000, the earth’s forest cover has shrunk by 13 million acres each year, with annual losses of 32 million acres far exceeding the regrowth of 19 million acres. Restoring the earth’s tree and grass cover protects soil from erosion, reduces flooding, and sequesters carbon.

Global deforestation is concentrated in the developing world. Tropical deforestation in Asia is driven primarily by the fast-growing demand for timber and increasingly by the expansion of oil palm plantations for fuel. In Latin America, the fast-growing markets for soybeans and beef are together squeezing the Amazon. In Africa, the culprit is mostly fuelwood gathering and land clearing for agriculture.

In recent years, the shrinkage of forests in tropical regions has released 2.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually. Meanwhile, expanding forests in the temperate regions are absorbing close to 700 million tons of carbon. On balance, therefore, some 1.5 billion tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere each year from forest loss, roughly one fourth as much as from fossil fuel burning.

Fortunately, there is a vast unrealized potential in all countries to lessen the various demands that are shrinking the earth’s forest cover. In industrial nations, the greatest opportunity lies in reducing the amount of wood used to make paper. The goal is first to reduce paper use and then to recycle as much as possible. The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widely, but South Korea, which recycles an impressive 91 percent, stands out. If every country recycled as much of its paper as South Korea does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by more than one third.

In developing countries, the focus needs to be on reducing fuelwood use. Indeed, fuelwood accounts for just over half of all wood removed from the world’s forests. Some international aid agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Foundation, are sponsoring projects to increase fuelwood efficiency through the use of more efficient cookstoves. Over the longer term, pressure on forests can be reduced by replacing firewood with solar thermal cookers or even with electric hotplates powered with renewable energy. More