Michael Specter has written a really fine article on the ambiguities and complexities involved in the measurement of carbon emissions. Sounds dull, right? It’s actually full of fascinating facts:
Just two countries–Indonesia and Brazil–account for about ten per cent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Neither possesses the type of heavy industry that can be found in the West, or for that matter in Russia or India. Still, only the United States and China are responsible for greater levels of emissions. That is because tropical forests in Indonesia and Brazil are disappearing with incredible speed. “It’s really very simple,” John O. Niles told me. Niles, the chief science and policy officer for the environmental group Carbon Conservation, argues that spending five billion dollars a year to prevent deforestation in countries like Indonesia would be one of the best investments the world could ever make. “The value of that land is seen as consisting only of the value of its lumber,” he said. “A logging company comes along and offers to strip the forest to make some trivial wooden product, or a palm-oil plantation. The governments in these places have no cash. They are sitting on this resource that is doing nothing for their economy. So when a guy says, ‘I will give you a few hundred dollars if you let me cut down these trees,’ it’s not easy to turn your nose up at that. Those are dollars people can spend on schools and hospitals.”
The ecological impact of decisions like that are devastating. Decaying trees contribute greatly to increases in the levels of greenhouse gases. Plant life absorbs CO2. But when forests disappear, the earth loses one of its two essential carbon sponges (the other is the ocean). The results are visible even from space. Satellite photographs taken over Indonesia and Brazil show thick plumes of smoke rising from the forest. According to the latest figures, deforestation pushes nearly six billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. That amounts to thirty million acres–an area half the size of the United Kingdom–chopped down each year. Put another way, according to one recent calculation, during the next twenty-four hours the effect of losing forests in Brazil and Indonesia will be the same as if eight million people boarded airplanes at Heathrow Airport and flew en masse to New York.
And here I was, all proud of myself because I installed two compact fluorescent light bulbs. You can also listen to Specter on Fresh Air.