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EarthTalk / Deforestation and global warming

Published 5:49 pm, Saturday, November 17, 2012
  • Deforestation in tropical rainforests - from logging, coffee growing, meat and milk production and other economic activities - adds more CO2 to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world's roads. Pictured: Cattle in a clearcut portion of the Amazon Rainforest. Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto/Thinkstock Photo: Contributed Photo
    Deforestation in tropical rainforests - from logging, coffee growing, meat and milk production and other economic activities - adds more CO2 to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world's roads. Pictured: Cattle in a clearcut portion of the Amazon Rainforest. Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto/Thinkstock Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that cutting and burning trees adds more global warming pollution to the atmosphere than all the cars and trucks in the world combined? -- Mitchell Vale, Houston, Texas

By most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world's roads. According to the World Carfree Network, cars and trucks account for about 14 percent of global carbon emissions, while most analysts attribute upwards of 15 percent to deforestation.

The reason that logging is so bad for the climate is that when trees are felled they release the carbon they are storing into the atmosphere, where it mingles with greenhouse gases from other sources and contributes to global warming accordingly. The upshot is that we should be doing as much to prevent deforestation as we are to increase fuel efficiency and reduce automobile usage.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading green group, 32 million acres of tropical rainforest were cut down each year between 2000 and 2009 -- and the pace of deforestation is only increasing.

"Unless we change the present system that rewards forest destruction, forest clearing will put another 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in coming decades," the EDF reported.

"Any realistic plan to reduce global warming pollution sufficiently -- and in time -- to avoid dangerous consequences must rely in part on preserving tropical forests," the EDF reported. But it's hard to convince the poor residents of the Amazon basin and other tropical regions of the world to stop cutting down trees when the forests are still worth more dead than alive.

"Conservation costs money, while profits from timber, charcoal, pasture and cropland drive people to cut down forests," the EDF reported.

Exacerbating global warming isn't the only negative impact of tropical deforestation. It also wipes out biodiversity: More than half of the world's plant and animal species live in tropical rainforests.

One way some tropical countries are reducing deforestation is through participation in the United Nations' Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program. REDD essentially works to establish incentives for the people who care for the forest to manage it sustainably while still being able to benefit economically. Examples include using less land (and therefore cutting fewer trees) for activities such as coffee growing and meat and milk production. Participating nations can then accrue and sell carbon pollution credits when they can prove they have lowered deforestation below a baseline. The REDD program has channeled more than $117 million in direct financial aid and educational support into national deforestation reduction efforts in 44 developing countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America since its 2008 inception.

Brazil is among the countries embracing REDD among other efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Thanks to the program, Brazil has slowed deforestation within its borders by 40 percent since 2008 and is on track to achieve an 80 percent reduction by 2020. Environmentalists are optimistic that the initial success of REDD in Brazil bodes well for reducing deforestation in other parts of the tropics as well.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the "Bluesign" standard for textiles? Which if any well known manufacturers are embracing it? -- Karin Romano, Bristol

Bluesign is an emerging standard for environmental health and safety in the manufacturing of textiles. The Switzerland-based organization, officially known as Bluesign Technologies AG, provides independent auditing of textile mills, examining manufacturing processes from raw materials and energy inputs to water and air emissions outputs. Each component is assessed based on its ecotoxicological impact. Bluesign ranks its audit findings in order of concern, and suggests ways to reduce consumption while recommending alternatives to harmful chemicals or processes where applicable.

Textile mills that commit to verifiably adopting Bluesign's recommendations can become certified "System Partners" and attract business from a wide range of brands and retailers around the world looking for greener vendors.

Eco-aware consumers can feel confident purchasing clothing items with the Bluesign label that they are buying the most environmentally friendly, socially conscious version of the jacket, shirt, sweater, pants, hat or gloves in question. Given the push for greener products of every kind, Bluesign has gained serious traction in the last few years among some of the leading brands in the outdoor clothing and gear business.

Patagonia was Bluesign's first "brand" member and has been supportive of the program since its inception in 2000. While only 16 percent of the products in its 2012 line contain Bluesign-approved fabrics, the company has set a goal with its suppliers to have all Patagonia fabrics adhere to the standard by 2015.

The North Face is a newer partner for Bluesign, but no less committed: The company has been going gangbusters for the standard since 2010, and offers several clothing items made with at least 90 percent Bluesign-approved fabrics. Over the two years it has been converting its supply chain over to Bluesign-approved vendors, The North Face has saved 85 Olympic swimming pools worth of water, 38 tanker trucks worth of chemicals, and carbon emissions similar to taking some 1,100 cars off the road for a year.

Another leading outdoor clothing manufacturer embracing Bluesign is Norway's Helly Hansen. In its 2012 line, more than 100 of Helly Hansen's 500 products contain fabrics that meet the Bluesign standard; that number is expected to increase by 50 percent in 2013. Helly Hansen would go fully Bluesign except that some of its specialty products that need to be flame retardant do not meet the standard. The company is optimistic, however, that textile makers can solve that problem--and then it can offer a 100 percent Bluesign-approved product line. Some of the other big outdoor brands that have teamed up with Bluesign include REI and Canada's Mountain Equipment Co-op.

Whether Bluesign catches on more widely in this dog-eat-dog, economically stressed business climate remains to be seen. "Earning Bluesign approval costs mills and suppliers time and money," MEC reported "They have to be convinced they'll get a return on their investment in the form of increased demand for their products from manufacturers like MEC and ultimately from consumers."

EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com.