The Frontal Cortex

Measuring Carbon

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.

Comments

  1. #1 John Baeyens
    February 22, 2008

    What an absurd reasoning !
    Because Brazil would be cutting down part of *its* forests and thus reducing the absorbation of CO2 produced in the US, this doesn’t mean that Brazil accounts for ten procent of the greenhouses gases *released* into the atmosphere.
    You can’t expect Brazil to take care of the abherant consumption patterns and oil addication of the Americans?

    Look at this map:
    http://www.worldmapper.org/images/largepng/295.png
    28% of the CO2 emissions comes from Northern American countries (Canada + the US). The impact of Brazil on CO2 emission is smaller than that of Australia and a fraction of that of the US.

    Conclusion: Brazil has all the rights to grow CO2 emissions per capita. It’s North Americans which have to change their behavior; NOW. The Amazon has nothing to do with that. The US used to also have vast forest… once. It was the nation’s sovereign decission to fuck things up; deal with it.

  2. #2 Roger
    February 22, 2008

    If carbon emission reduction is another justification to pressure rainforest countries to limit deforestation, that’s a good thing. It’s a pity the biodiversity argument hasn’t taken hold.

    On another point, let’s bear in mind the low-hanging fruit of high carbon activities in developed countries.

    For example, simply cutting our water use will make a big dent on carbon emissions, according to some scientists.

    People tout biofuels as carbon neutral, but what about the use of fossil fuels to run the farm equipment, fertilize the land, process the crop, etc.?

  3. #3 bigTom
    February 22, 2008

    John is being disingenuous. Regardless of where the emissions are ocurring -or who has contributed how much in the past, tackling the most cost effective reductions first is the best policy. If a small amount of
    subsidies from developed countries can bias the policies of a poorer country in a better direction, that is money well spent. That doesn’t mean that North Americans are off the hook. Just that with limited resources to spend -at least in the early years, we gotta be smart about how we spend them.

  4. #4 John Baeyens
    February 23, 2008

    @bigTom
    What a despicable neo-colonial thinking. The most cost-efficient way for Americans to reduce their CO2 footprint per capita is to consume less and grow less; full stop.
    Brazil doesn’t need subsidies to be biased in better directions. It is already in good directions, with a CEO2 footprint per capita 9 times lower than that in the US.
    Besides, the US doesn’t have the cash to subsidize Brazil.
    The US, as one of the biggest debtors in the world. Brazil has become an external creditor.
    So, tell me, how do you see the US subsidizing Brazil? And who would determine the pricing for Brazil traking care of an American society dying in its own fumes and dirt?
    The solution to deforrestation will be somewhat more complex than the idea the US can export its problems at a bargain price and keep think ‘all is happy again’.
    Referral to an excellent article on the matter:
    http://www.emergingsouth.net/the-amazon-brazil-the-us-and-co2-emissions/

  5. #5 peggy
    February 23, 2008

    I’m afraid John is absolutely right about Brazil having become a net creditor nation. But I’m not sure it’s such a good idea, even if Brazil has carbon credits, for it to aspire to increase its emissions.
    The US has to take leadership in this area simply because, as a developed country with cutting edge technology, we owe it to the world to lead the quest for solutions that will benefit the planet. This may sound hopelessly naive, but as the biggest users of the planet’s resources (until China catches up with us), we have a moral obligation to address the problem.