Article in "Hamburger Abendblatt": What is the Value of the Rain Forest?

26.04.2014

News from Climate Science: Once a month, climate researchers report on their latest findings in the newspaper "Hamburger Abendblatt. Dr. Daniel Plugge calculates carbon content of Madagascan forests as a basis for climate protection investments by industrial nations.

Environmental and climate protection requires investors as illustrated by the following example: Farmers right outside Munich in southern Germany receive money in exchange for fertilizing less. Thus, groundwater protection keeps production costs for safe drinking-water down. A benefit for all — the municipal utility services which invest in water, the farmers and the environment. This model may become similarly successful in the tropics and subtropics where rain forests as carbon sinks are crucial to the climate equation. Every destroyed tree increases the global temperature. As a climate researcher at Universität Hamburg’s Cluster of Excellence "Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction" (CliSAP), I am currently investigating how to protect forests by assigning them monetary value.

In order to take stock of biomass, I visited Madagascar three times. Assisted by locals, I measured and documented all trees in specific forest sections, assessing trunk diameters, heights, treetop sizes and forms, etc. Aiming to establish the total wood volume we determined the amount of carbon sequestration in the national woodlands based on satellite data. A comparison with previous data indicated how much carbon had already been released due to deforestation. In years to come, this point of reference will show us whether the island nation will destroy less trees, thereby reducing its emissions.

This science-based method was created in accordance with all participants and is a significant step in realizing the UN’s climate protection program REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). Its key approach is: Whoever profits from forest climate regulation has to pay for it. Nations like Germany or Norway are backing forest preservation efforts in developing countries through investments. Nonetheless, the latter still find almost all forms of land-use more attractive than the protection of tropical woods. Indonesian or Brazilian farmers, for instance, tend to turn forests into arable land. In the same way, corporations contribute to the destruction by setting up palm oil or animal feed plantations. Therefore, as consumers in industrial nations we have all become indirect motors of deforestation.

The just distribution of REDD+ funds, however, poses quite a challenge. Observing systems never reflect the exact conditions on location. Unpredictability – incident to estimates and extrapolations – cannot be eliminated completely, but I am striving to reduce variables. In particular, because REDD+ participants who protect habitats and manage them sustainably expect funding from the environmental protection program. Unfair distribution would rob them of this income. Reversely, countries supportive of the project would feel deterred if developing nations were to profit from unjustified enrichment. The UN must balance this out to ensure permanent commitment on both sides.

It would be worth the effort! According to UN estimates, the annual global forest loss is thirteen million hectares. Tantamount to all German and Austrian woodlands it causes up to one fifth of all human-induced carbon emissions. Focusing on this factor is the most cost-efficient way to protect our climate.

(Dr. Daniel Plugge)