Saving the planet through its trees

Now is the time to act on the fact that much of our future is linked to the conservation of forests

by Stephen Hesse

Negotiators at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen didn’t see eye to eye on much last month, but almost everyone agreed on one thing: To protect the planet we need to save its forests.

From Denmark to Japan, where The Japan Times’ Nature page columnist C.W. Nicol and others have submitted a new forestry proposal to the government, there is clear consensus that forests must be conserved while they are still intact.

“Healthy, well-managed forests are essential to the survival of our societies: They are home to millions of species of plants, animals and insects, and protect soils and watersheds from erosion. They act as carbon stores, absorbing greenhouse gases and preventing their release into the atmosphere. Maintaining forest ecosystems can help to increase our resilience to climate change,” explains the U.N.-REDD Programme Secretariat.

U.N.-REDD is the acronym for a United Nations initiative established in September 2008 calling for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.

In brief, the idea is for developed countries to pay developing nations to protect and manage their (primarily) tropical forests in order to reduce the global carbon emissions that result from deforestation and degradation.

A primary attraction of REDD is that it offers developed nations an inexpensive way to offset domestic emissions. For example, if nation X wants to reduce carbon emissions but finds domestic reductions difficult, it could pay nation Y to conserve forests that might otherwise be cut or cleared for agriculture. That way, nation Y would supposedly reduce its deforestation emissions by an amount equal to the needs of nation X.

One U.N. estimate suggests that, under a REDD initiative, Indonesia could be compensated as much as $1 billion a year to reduce its deforestation rate.

Between 1990 and 2005, annual global deforestation averaged some 130,000 sq. km (around four times the area of Kyushu), mostly in the Tropics, and greenhouse-gas emissions from felling, clearing for agriculture, and other means of deforestation, accounted for 17 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide — second only to the burning of fossil fuels, according to U.N. sources.

Theoretically it’s a win-win situation. Developed countries pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases, and developing nations with vast forests are paid to keep them intact.

Thus Paragraph 6 of the Copenhagen Accord states: “We recognize the crucial role of reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation and the need to enhance removals of greenhouse-gas emission by forests and agree on the need to provide positive incentives to such actions through the immediate establishment of a mechanism . . . to enable the mobilization of financial resources from developed countries.”

But establishing and managing a global U.N.-REDD system will be tough.

During a lecture last Saturday at the Chuo Law School in Tokyo, James Prest, a professor at the Australian National University’s College of Law in Canberra, noted five difficulties with implementing a REDD program: ensuring the permanence of such a system; preventing REDD from undermining domestic carbon markets; leakage, or emissions displacement, when logging or agriculture stops in one location, but moves to another; and governance and corruption problems. Illegal logging operations account for 25 to 30 percent of the tropical timber products on world markets today, according to Prest.

When it comes to promoting healthy forests in Japan, the first thing to note is that, unlike many other countries, this one is in the enviable position of being able to develop a two-prong forest-protection policy that includes REDD support for developing nations and the promotion of sustainable forestry at home.

Japan is also luckier than most developed nations because it has forests covering more than two-thirds of the country — and it has C.W. Nicol, known to most of us simply as Nic, as a true champion of those forests.

Nic is one of the leaders of Nihon ni Kenzen na Mori wo Tsukuri Naosu Iinkai (Committee to Recreate Healthy Forests in Japan), a citizen-based policy group formed to focus public opinion and government policies on protecting and sustainably using Japan’s forests. The committee is made up of 12 scholars, writers, and forestry professionals.

Last autumn, the group handed a set of proposals to Masahiko Yamada, a senior vice-minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, calling on the Japanese government to begin moving immediately toward a low-carbon society that judiciously conserves and capitalizes on its forests.

The committee proposes that Japan should commit to reducing oil use by at least 1 percent per year; begin using the natural energy of forests; become a nation that takes up forestry as a national occupation; and make this country a model for wise use of forest resources.

The group notes that Japan has long been a “wood culture,” crafting shrines, temples and houses from wood and respecting the spirit that resides among and within the trees.

During and after World War II, however, Japan cut down most of its natural broadleaf forests. Trees were replanted, but demand for wood pushed the nation to look abroad for timber. Since then, Japanese forestry has been in a slump and Japan now imports some 80 percent of the 80 to 100 million cu. meters of wood it uses annually from overseas.

Fortunately, the trees planted after the war have come of age, and Japan has a unique opportunity to become a nation once again protected and well served by its forests.

Hence the committee suggests that Japan consider the German model. According to the authors, Germany and Japan both have about the same amount of artificial, or planted, forests (around 10 million hectares), but Germany produces 60 million cu. meters of wood per year from its forests through an industry that employs more than a million workers — almost a third more than its car industry.

In stark contrast, Japan’s annual timber production is a mere 20 million cu. meters although the country has a total of around 25 million hectares of forest cover (comprising both natural and planted woodlands) occupying two-thirds of its land area. Moreover, the timber volume in Japan is estimated to total some 4.4 billion cu. meters, with annual growth of around 100 million cu. meters — which the authors categorize as “world class with extremely high potential.”

But timing is key, and the forests planted 50 to 60 years ago are ready now for managed harvesting. Japan has a choice: It can begin to thin and exploit these postwar forests or let them slowly decline, wasting valuable resources.

Japan could match the production of Germany if it began extracting 50 to 60 million cu. meters of wood per year, but this will require considerable human resources to thin out planted trees and develop healthier forests with more sunlight streaming into them so both old and young trees can thrive.

Raising extraction rates would dramatically cut Japan’s wood imports, save energy, and reduce the carbon generated when transporting imports. Forestry could eventually become a ¥2 trillion-a-year industry, according to the committee.

Since revival of rural areas goes hand in hand with protecting forests, the committee also suggests programs to encourage young people to take up forestry careers. A successful government initiative along these lines could hugely revitalize farming villages now suffering population declines that threaten their very existence.

We will see, and soon, if the Japanese government chooses the wise path toward a nationwide program of forest conservation and sustainable forestry. We will also see what becomes of the last great forests of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. If we can preserve our global forests, for the most part as they are now, we have a far better chance of adapting to climate change, even as carbon levels and temperatures rise.

But the clock is ticking. “We have already taken nearly half of the productive land to grow food, and now we are cutting and burning the remaining half,” warns world-renowned English scientist and author James Lovelock.

“It is all too often assumed that the vast changes to the land surface made by agriculture and forestry have had little or no influence on the sensitivity and resilience of the Earth system,” the author of 2005′s landmark book, “The Revenge of Gaia,” continues. “I think it is probable that the replacement of natural ecosystems with farmland may have altered the dynamics of climate feedback. We have to discard the old-fashioned teaching of both science and religion and begin to look on the forested land surface of the Earth as something that evolved to serve the metabolism of the Earth.

“It is irreplaceable,” Lovelock declares.

Stephen Hesse is a professor at Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com