From Paris: The World Agrees To Save Trees
The international climate talks continue in Paris this week and one of the hot topics has been deforestation. Louisiana cut down many of its forests in the 1800s, and as WWNO’s Tegan Wendland reports, the world has learned from our mistakes.
Walking around a grove of trees outside the COP21 talks near Le Bourget, just outside of Paris, there are maple, sycamore and what look like birch trees. While different from the forests of Louisiana, these trees are important for many of the same reasons.
If we cut down forests -- or deforest -- "that carbon is released, and indeed that has been a significant driver of global warming, of climate change," says Stewart McGinnis with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. "The other thing, of course, is that if forests release carbon when they’re cut down, they also store carbon when they grow," he says.
Trees remove warming CO2 from the atmosphere, and soak it up as part of photosynthesis. Less forest means more of this greenhouse gas. International studies estimate that deforestation contributes three billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.
Forests are in the spotlight at COP21 this week. A group of US companies have pledged to revamp their supply chains to stop deforestation, by using sustainable paper and palm oil. Prince Charles of Wales gave a speech appealing to the nations of the world to stop deforestation.
Jason Funk is senior scientist with The Union of Concerned Scientists. He says forests in coastal areas, like mangroves in more tropical areas, and cypress in Louisiana, are especially important.
“They help prevent damage from storms, they help dissipate the power of storms and storm surges, along the coast, and then there’s some really fascinating science about the fact that cypress are really exquisitely adapted to this function," he says. "They can withstand 150 mile-an-hour winds and a few hours later just sort of stand back up.”
But after centuries of logging, Louisiana’s cypress forests are a fraction of what they once were. That’s left our coast more vulnerable.
The countries with major forests still standing -- like Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Norway -- announced a partnership this week to support each other’s efforts to protect their trees, “because forests provide multiple benefits, this is an area that people can generally agree on," McGinnis says.
For its part, the US has agreed to restore nearly 400,000 acres at home, as part of the international Bonn Forest Challenge.
Louisiana has seen a renewed interest in its trees. Not cypress, but pine.
Pine trees become wood pellets that get burned to produce electricity in Europe, as Europe moves away from coal and oil to use more biomass – usually wood. American exports of wood pellets have doubled, according to the Energy Information Administration. New wood pellet plants in Baton Rouge and Monroe are helping meet that demand.
Senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Peter Miller, says that’s not good.
“There is a tremendous increase in demand for wood pellets in Europe and the southeastern forests of the US are seen as one of the prime sources for that," he says. "But that has significant consequences for emissions both in the EU and ecosystem impacts in the US."
He says burning wood is seen as less dirty than coal or oil, but it's not really that clean either.
“Cutting down whole trees and using them as an energy source can in many times be worse than using coal," Miller says, "because you lose the ability of those trees and those forests to continue to sequester carbon. As well: wood is not a particularly efficient energy source.”
He expects Louisiana will see a continued interest in its pine forests. But Funk says that depends on how some of these international dynamics play out. He says it’s all about how different countries interpret "clean energy," as laid out by the International Panel on Climate Change.
And he hopes that the Paris talks lead to some decisions on what clean energy really is.
Support for the coastal desk’s reporting from Paris is provided by the Foundation for Louisiana.
Support also comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.