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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Seeing the carbon for the trees
Peter Seligmann (Image: Conservation International)
Peter Seligmann

Protecting the world's remaining tropical forests will play a vital role in preventing dangerous climate change in the future, says Peter Seligmann. In this week's Green Room, he calls for a global system that offers nations an economic incentive to halt the destruction of the Earth's "lungs".

Forest and river in Liberia (Image: Richard Black)
Liberia's greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 250,000 times lower than those of the US, yet its remaining forests store approximately four billion tonnes of carbon dioxide
As Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf met US President George Bush at the White House last week, an expert from Liberia's Forestry Development Authority was across the river in a hi-tech laboratory, working on his country's potential involvement in a global strategy to confront climate change.

Augustine Johnson has been looking at ways to map and assess Liberia's remaining tropical forest and the carbon it stores.

If all goes according to plan, that carbon and the forest's ability to store it will become a valuable economic asset capable of bringing new revenue to the African country in desperate need of help to recover from civil war. The forests are already a valuable environmental asset for the whole planet.

Fifteen years have passed since Liberia and the US were among 190 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit.

Since then, Liberia has emerged from its long civil conflict, but economic recovery and widespread unemployment remain daunting challenges.

Untapped asset

Climate change poses another major threat to Liberia and other developing countries. The anticipated impacts, such as rising sea levels and more severe droughts, will cause the most harm to the world's poorest people living in nations that lack the resources to help them adapt.

Street in Liberian (Image: Richard Black)
Nations such as Liberia have high levels of people living in poverty
Liberia's greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 250,000 times lower than those of the US, yet its remaining forests store approximately four billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to the amount emitted by 57 million cars over 10 years.

Original forests are universally recognised as one of our planet's greatest natural resources because they provide jobs and sustenance for hundreds of millions of people.

They are nature's pharmacies and raw material factories, with unmatched biological diversity. They cleanse and restore water supplies, and they help prevent the spread of certain tropical diseases.

However, the amount of tropical forest our planet loses each year is one-and-a-half times the size of Liberia, releasing almost 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions - more than all the world's cars, trucks and planes combined.

Protect and preserve

Regulated carbon markets, recognised by the UNFCCC and mediated by Kyoto Protocol processes such as the Clean Development Mechanism, offer incentives to reduce methane from farming and landfill sites.

The markets also have programmes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the industrial sectors of emerging economies such as China and India.

Forest fire (Image: AP)
With the right economic tools and technical assistance to protect these forests, we will not only be helping Liberia, but a global community facing the unprecedented challenge of climate change

Yet they lack any mechanism to reduce the emissions from cutting and burning the valuable tropical forests of developing countries.

At December's UN climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia, leaders from all countries can find common ground to ensure forest protection is included as a valid, direct and immediate action that generates measurable carbon credits.

President Johnson-Sirleaf has demonstrated Liberia is a serious partner. A year ago, her newly elected government enacted the Forest Reform Law as a bold step to manage these natural forest resources.

The legislation established 30% of its remaining forests as national protected areas. These biologically rich and unique forests comprise the most extensive forest coverage in West Africa, providing resources depended on by a large percentage of the nation's people.

However, rampant poverty poses a serious threat to the government's ambitious policy. Many people have little choice but to earn a living by logging or mining, sometimes within the forests that are protected by law.

Liberia and other developing countries should be able to benefit economically from protecting their forests for the long-term global good, rather than sacrificing them for short-term survival.

But this will require reliable and consistent economic incentives from many different financing sources, including carbon credits and economic development assistance.

It will also require political will from developed nations such as the US, Japan and EU member states. Investment will be needed to quantify the carbon savings from forestry protection, and to build technical capacity and expertise in the forestry programmes of developing countries.

And the corporate sector that buys carbon credits would have to be engaged and receptive to the concept.

Like many developing countries in tropical Africa, Latin America and Asia, Liberia possesses a vast wealth of biologically rich and globally important forests, despite its difficult economic circumstances.

By supporting this promising and courageous democracy with the right economic tools and technical assistance to protect these forests, we will not only be helping Liberia, but a global community facing the unprecedented challenge of climate change.

Peter A Seligmann is chairman and chief executive of Conservation International

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Peter Seligmann? Should we be doing more to reduce the emissions from cutting and burning the valuable tropical forests of developing countries? Should we be paying countries like Liberia not to destroy their own forests?

We should definitely be providing financial incentives to stop de-forestation. However, does Liberia have the necessary resources to police this? Illegal logging is a massive problem in other parts of the world. With so much poverty and possibly corruption, isn't this going to be nearly impossible to enforce?
Paul, London

Perhaps it is not only in the rain forests that global capitalism is killing itself and us. If we are to have a trully democratic system (iether globally or locally)-then surely we need to abandon the idea that democracy = free market capitalism. If there is no such thing as a free lunch -then how can there be ever be such a thing as a free market? So why are we always forced to eat the pre-set packaged meal -instead of being allowed to choose the "a la carte" menu? Presumably, we are not supposed to see the forest for the trees.
trevor batten, Manila, ph

Is it incentive to "protect forest" or to "avoid deforestation"? In the second case, one needs to estimate the amount of forest that would have been cut if the incentives were not present... That is tricky. Anyway monitoring forest cover precisely and on a short term regular basis is far from easy, on the technical point of view.
Patrick, Brussels

Absolutely. At TREETAX we believe that to start we should pay the people/not politicians to protect the forests. In the case of deserts we set the example of planting fruiting trees as a cash crop which has the beenfit of halting desertification and provides shade. These are simple actions which produce long term benefits.
julie lowe TREETAX, sheffield

Yes, it is a good topic to discuss. It is necessary to wake up people who are in high position in each goverment all over the world. time to save our planet time to reforest again time to think and do action Otherwise earth will be gone forever stop illegal logging stop curruption
Sarah Blaauw, Sipalay City Negros Occidental, Philippines

I think this is a great idea. We should save the forsest and any inigenous people that live in them. My concern is that we might save them for a while and then they get destroyed when economics change. Why don't rich countries buy them for a charity that is wholly independent and then they are safe forever?
Phil Cox, Watford

Fascinating. We have the opportunity to help decrease CO2 emissions, save an invaluable forest (and countless species that reside there), and help a third world country! I can't imagine not taking advantage of this opportunity....but then again, I do live in America.
Shawn McCorkle, College Station, USA

Of course providing funds for standing forests will slow deforestation. But in Liberia with a per capita income of 130 dollars a year and a life per person of less than 48 years how much would be needed to dent poverty. An old forest has no net volume growth. Hence the harvesting of old trees then replaced by new young trees would increase the annual carbon uptake. Further when considering carbon storage not only the live life of the tree must be considered, but also the length of time the wood remains before decay. Economically Liberia needs a modern forestry sector to replace the present export of unsawn logs. Value added must be shifted to 3rd world countries also. If any of you ever go to the Mayan ruins of Tikal you willsee lintels of chicle wood still sound and over a 1000 years old. Yet very little of that wood is harvested as it is slow and very hard to saw. I am sure such rot resistant woods exist in Africa with the same comercial problems. Yet they are the best storers of carbon. Also unless sub saharan Africa reduces its human growth rate the forest and just about everything else will be swept away.
Peter Hubbell, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.

The big question is how can you devise an effective mechanism that rewards governments for protecting forests. From a C02 perspective the retention of forest is beneficial in three ways. Firstly the forest absorbs C02, secondly forest destruction results in C02 being released and thirdly logging operations use large machines that use fossil fuels. How to calculate the value of each of these elements is not easy. For example mature trees absorb less C02 than younger ones. And then how to measure if forests are being successfully maintained. Satellite imagery will help, but is not foolproof especially when trying to gauge forest density. How about forest fires? What value should be ascribed to new forests ?(younger trees absorb more C02). There are answers to all of these questions. Lets hope they are answered without too much political interference.
Richard Rhodes, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Peace Nobel prize to IPCC and Mr Al Gore this year, has emphasized the significance of 'climate change'. Incidentally Mr Al Gore is from America, the highest green house gas emitter in the world and the IPCC chief Dr Pachouri is from India, which is projected to take over that role from US. Can someone put the 'SINO INDO US link' in perspective? Should someone play 'BIG BROTHER'? Can India afford greener technologies? Is it (im)possible for USA to curb its carbon footprint? How different are local policies on environment in these countries? Can they compliment one another? with due respect, Is UN, a useless body?
Kydala Danappiah, Bangalore, India

It is welcoming to know that'Liberia'despite its very poor economic state, extreme poverty, and other unmentioned characteristics of nothingness is far better than some of the world's developed nations. I think the developed nations should be proud of such achievement, and provide the rightful assistance needed to help detraumatise and stabilise such impoverished nation that suffers the debasement of a senseless and brainwashed war. The funds given should be monitored at all levels of usage to avoid the disguised system of bandits using the funds on their families, and other unnecessary issues. I also think the revelation of such contribution to climate change and rain forest's protection should give rise to other developing countries to advocate in general for better assistance that the funds would be used to helping the common and poor families around the world not enriching politician's pockets.
ALLEN NYEKA, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

These tropical rainforests are massive carbon sinks and should be protected. Countries with such natural resources, if lacking other sources of economic wealth, should seek such incentives. Countries that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide would best benefit by investing in these forests. Of course, it would be much more beneficial if each country reduced its carbon footprint in the first place. Both require long-term preparation and action.
Mark Ostendorf, Missouri, US

I cannot see us doing enough in time to halt the wanton destruction of this natural treasure. The Amazon forests are seriously threatened by drought and if they perish we will be in terrible trouble. Liberia is to be applauded and supported as much as is humanly possible to help conserve these irreplaceable resources for the good of humankind. The developed world should take decisive and effective steps to reduce the toll on these forests. Call me cynical, but can you see that happening before it's too late?
Pete Roberts, Rhiwlas

This is an excellent idea in my opinion because studies have shown that preserving tropical forests could make a big contribution to cutting greenhouse gas production and the money spent on preserving them could be less than would be required for many high-tech solutions. At the same time preserving them could help reduce poverty. Last but not least, part of the reason why we want to avoid man-made climate change is that we want to preserve nature, so preserving forest biodiversity, reducing poverty and reducing climate change could be tackled together.
Ed, Bath

True, in this I believe forests should be treated and traded like intellectual property (i.e. for the benefit of pharmaceutics) with physical immunity. They should be able to 'move' within a country by trade, not destroyed. The markets would love this. And it would be of global benefit.
Pieter Vermeersch, Dendermonde, Belgium

I have walked the forests of Liberia and I have seen the greedy foreign and local people in the capital hungry to get to the trees. The key to keeping the trees is educating the average Liberian what a tree means to him or her and humanity. The "big" people at top will work very hard to get every euro or dollar they can out of the natural resources in Liberia and hardly any of that will benefit the masses, as usual. Cutting a tree does not have a huge emotional impact on us Liberians. Recently very old flowering trees in the center of the city were completely cut down the only shade in the center and the only greenery. IT was seen as progress. You have to ask yourself, who is in charge? Even those in charge see cutting trees as gaining something for themselves. No matter that a law was enacted, will it really protect Liberian forests and WHY only 30percent of the whole forest? If we could get financing for NOT cutting, them those at top need to run after this immediately and! save our forests for US and for all humans!
A Liberian who cares, monrovia, liberia

Absolutely. After spending three years in West Africa (Guinea,Conakry) I am convinced that the African sub-continent will save the rest of the world by being able to offer up its natural resources--which by and large remain pristine. If we can catch them in time before poverty reduces the forests to nothingness that is. Good for Johnson and Liberians to recognize this as a resource the rest of the world will soon die for, almost literally. Overdevelopment and the consumption levels seen in the West are proving to be bad for the planet, Africa is the only place where this is not yet reality.
Therese Turner-Jones, Bridgetown, Barbados

Considering the role of 'original' tropical forests in climate stablisation and the quantity of carbon released into the atmosphere from deforestaion, I don't think we have a choice. But this will no doubt get tricky - the economic beneifts of forest conservation must be competetive (in the short and long term) with other land use strategies such as subsistence and commercial agriculture (including bio-fuel production). Currently, other land use strategies are winning hands down...lets give the climate-forest conservation model a chance!
Brad Mulley, Bangui, CAR

After reading this interesting rather exciting article , I 've understood yet, simpithised with the people all over the world trying to prevent forest pollution and the cutting of trees, asking god to help them in every step. HHH
Hisham AL-saleh, USA

I think this is a brilliant idea that should be backed by all the necessary people. In reality, people do have to make ands meet and if you can help them do that by providing a financial incentive and assistance and education, we have a chance of saving forests that we can never replace, that we have already lost too much of
Gemma Foley, Barnstaple, devon, uk

Great that this is happening but please look at what the Australian Gov is doing in Tasmania. Australia has an 8 year drought and then they legalise the destruction of a thousand year old forest giving a logging company a 50 year contract for blanket clearing. It begs belief.
Greg Page, Castellina in Chianti Italy.

Good article: 'Avoided Deforestation' may be one of the very few good things to come out of the problem of climate change. Protecting natural forest helps both wildlife and climate, unlike many other supposed mitigation measures.
Clive Hambler, Oxford, UK

Definately! Almost all of the tropical rainforests are in third world countries. All these countries are crying out for investment, trade etc., therefore there is a huge temptation to export rain forest products. However, I believe there should be tight control of where that money goes to. Not, hopefully into the back pockets of politicians!
Robert, Tabuk, Saudi Arabia

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