08 Feb Pay to Breathe – Carbon Offsetting Taken To The Next Level
We pay for food and water, why not for the air? What is the price of biodiversity and why must we prioritize saving ancient forests over tree planting? Is carbon offsetting really the only answer or do we need other solutions?
Every one of us depends on oxygen without ever questioning where it comes from. Almost half the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans and the other half from plant life. Whilst millions of tiny trees are being planted, old intact ancient forests full of life are being cut down.
Forests cool the atmosphere by inhaling CO2 through the process of photosynthesis and storing or sequestering it in roots, trunks, branches, needles and leaves. Half a tree’s weight is carbon.
The world’s forests contain more carbon than exploitable oil, gas, and coal deposits, hence avoiding forest carbon emissions is just as urgent as halting fossil fuel use.
As the world wakes up to the climate and ecological crisis we are facing, people and business are deciding what they must do.
With the Paris Agreement and a focus on how to arrive at Net Zero we need far reaching solutions.
Carbon Offsetting tends to focus on planting saplings and this is a far less effective way of reducing emissions than preserving intact primary forest and key biodiversity areas .
One of the most popular responses is Carbon Offsetting, the planned reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Currently businesses and individual spend many millions of dollars on carbon offsetting, and most of this money is going into renewable technology and tree planting.
Voluntary Carbon Market
In 2016, 63.4 million metric tons of CO2 were offset in the voluntary market at a cost of $191.3 million. In 2019, it is more than 100 million metric tons (+40%).
The Problem with Carbon Offsetting
Carbon Offsetting tends to focus on planting saplings and this is a far less effective way of reducing emissions than preserving intact primary forest and key biodiversity areas .
Afforestation and reforestation can contribute to Carbon Dioxide Removal, but newly planted forests require many decades to a century before they sequester carbon dioxide in substantial quantities
The Focus must be on Conservation of Primary Forest
According to the UN IPBES Global AssessmentReport
“1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.”
For 20 years I have worked in the Ecuadorian Amazon and watched as the forest and all the life within slowly disappears. I have had many discussions with farmers and indigenous communities who tell me they ‘have to’ cut down the forest to buy food and medicine and send their children to school. The rivers , often contaminated no longer flow with an abundance of fish.
This understanding is why I am now passionately advocating for money to be moved to those who are the guardians of standing forest, those who protect the air that we all breathe and the vast biodiversity of life.
History has shown that most intact ecosystems lies within indigenous territory. They still have a deep connection and understanding of the land and in many cases will protect it with their lives.
The world could move some of the carbon offsetting money towards protecting intact forests and alleviating poverty by financially reimbursing individuals and communities to protect these vital primary forests.
Old Trees are more important than New Trees
The difference between tree planting and protection of already established forests is vast. Of course, I do not want to diss tree planting, but the priority is to sequester carbon (primary forest is already doing this and it will take decades or even centuries for saplings to do the same), protection of watershed and prevention of soil erosion is the same, intact ancient forests are the best examples.
The biggest difference however is that primary forests are home to a huge diversity of species (many threatened with extinction) whereas tree planting can never recreate the diversity of an established ecosystem. Also, there is vast genetic information stored in these untouched forests, which will be vital for the future of food, medicine and bio inspired technology.
Today, less than 20% of the world’s forests remain intact (i.e., largely free from logging and other forms of extraction and development). Currently worldwide we have already lost 13 million hectares and every day we lose approximately another 34,000 hectares. This is being lost due to agriculture, logging, fuel, road building, biofuels and mining. At the current trend we have only 79 years left until the end of rainforests and by 2030 we will only have 10% of the worlds originals forests left.
Asides from large corporate land grabs, poverty is driving the destruction of forests by small farmers just needing to survive.
Forest is mainly exchanged for palm oil, soya, cattle, coffee, cacao, sugar and large monoculture.
An example of loss of forest due to cattle ranching clearly shows the pros and cons. One of the main driving forces of deforestation is cattle who not only destroy millions of species who once resided on that land through the slash and burn of the forest they also create water pollution, soil erosion, release methane and create obesity in the general public.
Whereas forests on the same piece of land provide healthy food for humans and wildlife, create oxygen, sequester carbon, prevent soil erosion, create rain, protect watersheds, provide irreplaceable scientific value including the future of food and medicine and have great spiritual benefits due to being places of awe, beauty and connection..
So why are we investing millions in tree planting rather than protecting what we already have?
The Social and Economic Benefits of Preserving Primary Forest
A project which financially supports those who are the rightful guardians of primary forest would tick off many of the Sustainable Development Goals such as No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Health and Wellbeing, Quality Education, Clean Water, Decent Work, Climate Action and Life on Land.
Who would benefit? People who have intact ecosystems who driven by poverty are considering deforestation. Also the numerous species that live within.
The latest statistics show that rainforest land converted to cattle operations yields the land owner just $60 per acre and if timber is harvested, the land is worth $400 per acre. This small amount puts food on the table but the inhabitants will remain in poverty.
The Real Cost of the Forest
The total global stock of forest carbon has been estimated at a minimum of 862 GtC of which 55% occurs in tropical forests, 32% in boreal forests, and 14% in temperate forests (Pan et al. 2011) This estimate, however, is largely based on living and dead biomass carbon, not soil carbon.
Older, more complex forests are reported to store more carbon and are still increasing their storage rates. (Moomaw 2019).
One example is the Los Cedros Reserve in Ecuador where I was locked down for 5 months. Calculating the minimum estimates of carbon storage using the best currently available models shows that the carbon content in the Los Cedros Reserve above ground is estimated at 235 metric tons per hectare.
Primary forests store 30–70% more carbon than logged and degraded forests (Krankina & Harmon 2006, Bryan et al. 2010, Keith et al. 2014, Carlson et al. 2010).
The main reason for higher carbon stocks in primary forests is that most living biomass carbon is found in large, old trees (Stephenson 2014) and in undisturbed soil stocks and peat.
Every year 0.8-0.9 GtC (that is gigatons !) or about 8% of annual global anthropogenic emissions are released into the atmosphere as a result of deforestation (ISU 2015). Degradation contributes about 6-13% of annual global anthropogenic emissions (ISU 2015)
We Need Carbon Offsetting Plus (or Pay to Breathe)
We need a superior carbon offset product/service
Primary forest conservation is a critical component of land carbon mitigation. Land-based solutions to climate change, including avoided deforestation and avoided forest degradation combined with forest regeneration and restoration can represent a significant solution for climate change mitigation and the stabilization of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
Altogether, avoided deforestation, avoided forest degradation, and forest regeneration and restoration could stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2 while fossil fuels are replaced by renewable fuels over the next few decades (Houghton et al, 2015), thereby providing a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to less than 2°C.
The monetary value of the CO2 in a tropical forest is established by looking at the market for carbon credits. The most liquid market is the European Union ETS. In this market the average price in 2019 was $24.72 per metric ton of CO2. In this case, a carbon offset can be purchased for the sequestration of one metric ton of CO2 per year. One carbon offset can be purchased for $24.72. This carbon offset gives the holder the right to reduce their tax base in the calculation of their carbon tax by one metric ton of CO2. The ETS would have to certify the CO2 content of the area, so that offsets can be issued and sold to companies on the EU ETS to offset their carbon tax base.
Alternately, the credit could be sold to a company which wants to offset their CO2 emissions for the year and become a net zero emitter of CO2 for the year. This would reduce the net amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, since somewhere between 12 and 29% of CO2 emissions come from deforestation.
We obtained the CO2 content of one hectare below ground following the article by Cook-Patton et. al. (2020). This article provides a data set which estimates the carbon content for all forests in the world.
The software and data are available from the Global Forest Watch (GFW) web site https://www.globalforestwatch.org/.
For example according to GFW, there are 206 metric tons of carbon per hectare in the top 30 cm of soil in the area of Los Cedros,. We can safely say that estimates of carbon from only the top 30 cm of soil yield an overall underestimate of the underground storage of carbon, as other observations have found significant organic matter in soil up to 100 cm.
BUT ITS NOT ALL ABOUT CARBON
Tropical rain forests produce 40% of the Earth’s oxygen. In the last 40 years we have lost 50% of all rain forests and over time we have lost half of all forests globally.
Forests cover 31% of the land area on our planet. Because of them, people are able to thrive and survive since they provide oxygen, purify the water and the air we breath.
Trees renew our air supply by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. . One tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year. One acre of trees removes up to 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year.. A human breathes about 740kg of oxygen per year.
WHATS IN IT FOR US HUMANS?
- At least 80% of the developed world’s diet originated in the tropical rainforest. Its bountiful gifts to the world include fruits like avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangoes and tomatoes; vegetables including corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams; spices like black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, turmeric, coffee and vanilla and nuts including Brazil nuts and cashews.
- At least 3000 fruits are found in the rain forests; of these only 200 are now in use in the Western World. The Indians of the rain forest use over 2,000.
- Rainforest plants are rich in secondary metabolites, particularly alkaloids. Biochemists believe alkaloids protect plants from disease and insect attacks. Many alkaloids from higher plants have proven to be of medicinal value and benefit.
- Currently, 121 prescription drugs currently sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. And while 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rain forest ingredients, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.
- The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified 3000 plants that are active against cancer cells. 70% of these plants are found in the rain forest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rain forest.
Why is Biodiveristy important?
As the largest tract of tropical rainforest in the Americas, the Amazonian rainforests have unparalleled biodiversity. One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon rainforest. This constitutes the largest collection of living plants and animal species in the world.
The region is home to about 2.5 million insect species, tens of thousands of plants, and some 2,000 birds and mammals. To date, at least 40,000 plant species, 2,200 fishes, 1,294 birds, 427 mammals, 428 amphibians, and 378 reptiles have been scientifically classified in the region.
According to The Nature Conservancy, One hectare (2.47 acres) of rainforest contains as many as 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies.
To date, an estimated 438,000 species of plants of economic and social interest have been registered in the region with many more remaining to be discovered or catalogued.
Surprisingly, scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the galaxy than they have of how many species there are on Earth. Estimates vary from 2 million to 100 million species, with a best estimate of somewhere near 10 million; only 1.4 million of these species have actually been named.
Less Oxygen Produced
Oxygen comprises only about 21 percent of air’s chemical component. Yet, it is extremely important to life on earth. Living organisms, from single-celled animals to humans, use oxygen to produce the energy required to sustain them. Since trees are considered larger plants, their production of oxygen is much more significant. It is estimated that tropical rain forests, produce 40 percent of the earth’s oxygen even though they cover only about 6 percent of the land. Rain forests in the Amazon have declined by 17 percent in the last 50 years as a result of deforestation.
Become aware of the source of every breath you take.
Without trees, humans would not be able survive because the air would be unsuitable for breathing. If anything, without oxygen, we will have to develop some kind of gas masks that will be able to filter the little oxygen that would be left in the air.
Due to deforestation there are fewer trees to “clean” the air.
Deforestation, as well as a rise in the emissions and our global temperature, affects the air that we breathe. This is because all trees take in carbon dioxide and other pollutants which are known to cause a lot of problems in the atmosphere and to us, humans. This inevitably results in all of us breathing dirtier and more polluted air that we otherwise wouldn’t.
Trees are responsible for taking the carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis in order to make energy. This carbon is then either transferred into oxygen and released into the air by respiration or is stored inside the trees until they decompose into the soil. Therefore, the absence of trees would result in significantly higher amounts of carbon dioxide in the air and lower amounts of oxygen! This bad quality air would also be full of airborne particles and pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
In addition to the decrease of oxygen in the atmosphere, it would allow excessive amounts of carbon dioxide to remain. In the short term, since CO2 is one of the major greenhouse gases, it will undoubtedly lead to higher global temperatures which, in turn, would quicken the melting of the polar ice caps.
Measurements of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane released from Amazonian soils show that tropical deforestation accelerates the greenhouse problem.
By partnering charities in the global north with grass roots local organizations in the global south we could ensure a flow of money to where it is needed most.
We need an economic paradigm with nature at its core. Currently nature is only valued when it is dead ie timber, We must shift this to valuing Nature for not only its intrinsic value but for the Natural Ecosystem Services it provides.
We must value biodiversity, the more variety of life the more the forest must be worth alive. The more urgently we must protect it.
Offsetting is becoming expected from all responsible individuals, businesses and organization.
We must locate the priority Key Biodiversity Areas and ensure they are protected first. Local organizations and landowners / indigenous guardians must be contacted, the land mapped and an agreement made. Many people are concerned as to whether once money has been received people will still cut it down anyway. Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, satellite mapping can verify down to the last tree. Farmers will be paid annually or quarterly and if any forest is missing the payments will stop.
I have spoken with many locals in the Amazon who verify they would love to be able to not cut down the forest and are only waiting for such a project.
To meet any proposed climate goals of the Paris Climate Agreement (1.5, 2.0◦C, targets for reduced emissions) it is essential to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sources including fossil fuels, bioenergy, and land use change, and increase CDR by forests, wetlands and soils.
Keeping the current forest carbon stock intact and undisturbed from industrial land use, and promoting ecological restoration of degraded forest carbon stocks, is a critically important mitigation action if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.
Stakeholders and policy makers need to recognize that the way to maximize carbon storage and sequestration is to protect intact forest ecosystems first
It is vital to protect and value biodiversity
Poverty is fueling deforestation and extinction
We pay for our food and water but take for granted the air that we breathe
Carbon offsetting means you can continue to burn fossil fuels and just pay a tax, this does not protect species threatened with extinction or help alleviate poverty.
Pay to Breathe moves money to the rightful guardians of intact ecosystems, alleviates poverty and pressure on the forests
Primary forest provides us with oxygen, rain, food, species diversity as well as sequestering carbon.
And finally, we are not just paying to offset carbon we are playing to protect life, and affirm and honour the very air that we breathe.
Pay to Breathe is a powerful method to shift from extraction to regeneration, that prioritizes protecting the last remaining key biodiversity areas by supporting the local inhabitants. Once these areas are protected, tree planting can be encouraged to enlarge the area and due to having a heart of biodiversity this will in turn strengthen the species who live within.
‘What could be more important than having air to breathe and a thriving planet to call home?’