Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

COP21 Diaries: Building lung capacity

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Forests
Peruvian indigenous people attending a panel on forests at COP21 Peruvian indigenous people attending a panel on forests at COP21 Marco Magrini
02 Dec
2015
Marco Magrini reports for Geographical on daily events at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris

If you want to treat the planet’s fever, one has to begin with the lungs. Tropical forests, from Guatemala to Indonesia, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, are the lungs of the planet. Through the magic of photosynthesis, they feed on carbon dioxide and manage a massive share of the terrestrial carbon cycle. Unfortunately, they are disappearing at a rate of 12 million hectares per year. Deforestation is responsible for 11 per cent of global CO2 emissions: once felled, trees send back into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide they had previously captured. Trees do not only regulate the massive, planetary carbon cycle. They manage oxygen and water cycles as well. In a nutshell, they provide us with life.

At COP21, forests have received a flood of grand pronouncements and moderate financial pledges. ‘We, leaders,‘ reads a statement signed yesterday by the heads of state and prime ministers of 17 countries, both rich and poor, ‘recognise the essential role forests play in the long-term health of our planet, in contributing to sustainable development, and in meeting our shared goal of avoiding dangerous climate change. We are committed to intensifying efforts to protect forests, to significantly restore degraded forest, peat and agricultural lands, and to promote low carbon rural development.’

To be a little more prosaic, it is yet another question of money. The rules of climate diplomacy’s game prescribe that industrialised countries – those who have been burning large amounts of fossil fuels for centuries – have to bear the greatest responsibility. This is why Norway yesterday renewed its commitment to Brazil’s Amazon Fund, supporting the world’s most important lung, the Amazon. Germany and the UK also announced an alliance with Colombia, then the same three European nations pledged $1billion a year, by 2020, for countries participating in REDD+ programs (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). In other words, a money flow is guaranteed for those who swear to protect their share of the planet’s lungs.

Trees do not only regulate the massive, planetary carbon cycle. They manage oxygen and water cycles as well. In a nutshell, they provide us with life

According to multilateral commitments made so far, the world aims to halve deforestation by 2020 and erase it altogether by 2030. ‘Still,’ says Marc Bolland, vice president of the Consumer Goods Forum, ‘we might be able to eradicate the problem much earlier, say, in 2020.’ Bolland is not an environmentalist, but rather Marks & Spencer’s CEO. The Consumer Goods Forum, he says, brings together companies like ‘Nestle and Unilever, Coca Cola and PepsiCo, Tesco and Carrefour, which together generate $3trillion in earnings per year and want to be part of the solution’. This could be buying only certified palm oil, for example, or by signing partnerships with tropical countries and, according to Bolland, ‘sharing our solutions with small and medium-sized enterprises, so that they can also apply them’.

‘This is a crucial point,’ Marco Lambertini, general director of WWF International, tells me. ‘The commitment of big corporations is genuine. Thanks to their size, they have the power to make changes. The real question, however, is how to involve the farmers and small companies, which still represent locally the majority of trade, production and land use.’

REDD+’s results are mixed. So far, $9.8billion has been pledged, much less than the initial estimates. Yesterday, a coalition of indigenous communities held a conference here to protest against the ‘colonialist approach’ that ends up interfering with traditions and daily life in the villages. Brazil claims to have reduced deforestation by 70 per cent over the past decade, but recent satellite measurements show that the destruction has picked up force in recent times. Finally, it remains to be seen whether the could-be Paris agreement will include REDD+ in the final text or not.

In addressing COP21 delegates in Paris, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the People’s Republic climate mitigation programs include an increase in the forest stock of 4.5 billion cubic metres by 2030. However, trees have inevitably also become a bargaining chip, not only for the tropical nations of Latin America, Central Africa and Southeast Asia. During his speech, Vladimir Putin has implicitly stated that if Russia is one of the biggest world producers of oil and gas, it makes the world breathe with its immense endowment of forests.

Ask any physician. You don’t want to meddle with lung health.

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Forests

Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…

Cities

A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…

Deserts

Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…

Water

South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…

Forests

The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…

Mountains

In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…

Cities

New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…

Water

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…

Water

Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…

Mapping

New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…

Cities

Public transport in India could be on the verge of…

Water

To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…

Cities

IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…

Water

Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems

Forests

The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…

Forests

Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…

Forests

The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…

Forests

Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires