Tuesday, 4 November 2008

EDITORIAL: Protecting the forests

EDITORIAL: Protecting the forests


Forests cover about 30 percent of the world's land. These green tracts bustling with trees are not only treasure troves of life but also absorb carbon dioxide, thereby helping to prevent global warming. However, these forests, which offer so much, are being destroyed at an accelerated rate.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 350,000 square kilometers of forests, nearly the size of Japan, were lost in the five years to 2005 due to logging, forest fires or slashing and burning to make way for plantations and other large-scale farms.

Such deforestation now accounts for 20 percent of CO2 global emissions from vehicle exhaust or other human sources because carbon stored in trees through photosynthesis is released into the atmosphere with the burning of trees or other causes. The amount is equivalent to the overall annual emissions in the United States.

More than half of the estimated 10 million species on this planet live in tropical forests. Conserving forests is a key to preserving biodiversity.
But in reality, the destruction of forests shows no signs of abating.

According to one estimate, 5 to 10 percent of the species inhabiting tropical forests will become extinct in the next 30 years.

Developing countries lack funds
The international community has not been turning a blind eye to the serious problem of accelerated deforestation.

The U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, or the Earth Summit, in 1992 adopted the "Statement of Forest Principles" for the sustainable use of forests.

Unlike a formal international treaty, the Forest Principles are not legally binding but represent the first-ever global agreement on forests. Since then, efforts to protect forests have been made across the world under these principles.

One example involves countries and regions being organized into nine groups according to their natural conditions and social backgrounds, such as whether they have temperate or tropical forests and whether they are located in the northern or southern hemispheres.

Each of these groups has established its own standards concerning such issues as biodiversity, soil and preservation of water resources. They have initiated efforts to shift to sustainable forest management according to these standards.

A total of 149 countries belong to at least one of the nine groups.
Thanks to such efforts, the total areas of temperate forests in regions such as East Asia, including Japan, and Europe have started to show an increase.
What is disturbing is the fact that tropical forests continue to decrease rapidly in the Amazon of South America, and in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Industrial countries in temperate zones have the funds and the ability to take effective measures to protect their forests. But developing countries, where tropical forests are concentrated, lack the money to take up new approaches to forest management.

The question confronting the world is how to provide developing countries with funds necessary for forest conservation.

In addition to aid by industrialized nations and international organizations, a program known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is now attracting growing attention.

Ideas for the post-Kyoto framework
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming established a program that allows industrial countries to offset some CO2 emissions by planting forests in developing countries. But this plan is not applied in efforts to preserve existing forests.

REDD is aimed at amending this flaw and allows efforts to prevent forest destruction to be included as part of emission reductions.

Incorporating REDD into the post-Kyoto framework from 2013 would create a strong incentive for industrial nations to provide financial aid for forest-preservation efforts in developing countries.

If developing countries are allowed to use an emissions trading market to sell carbon credits earned by preventing forest reduction, the perception would spread that preserving forests makes more economic sense than allowing their trees to be steadily destroyed.

But some tough questions must be answered before this idea can be put into practice.

How, for example, should specific measures aimed at stopping deforestation be translated into emission reduction amounts? What kind of system would ensure a stable flow of funds to developing countries to prevent the destruction of forests?

This autumn, the World Bank started a new project to study the effectiveness of the REDD mechanism. Japan, which is taking part in the project, should provide good ideas for the effective use of REDD under the post-Kyoto framework.

Cracking down on illegal logging
Illegal logging is another major factor behind the acceleration of forest destruction.

Many countries restrict the total amount of logging through such measures as issuing permits for loggers and exporters. But illegal logging occurs despite these regulations.

In 1999, Indonesia, which is responsible for a quarter of global deforestation, became the first timber-producing country to admit to illegal logging at home and conducted a joint investigation into the problem with Britain.

The results showed that more than 50 percent of the country's timber was produced through illegal logging.

Unlawful logging, if left unaddressed, makes the government's logging-control measures meaningless.

This is also a serious problem for timber importers because cheap wood from illegal logging in the international market would make their domestic forest management harder to maintain.

Japan, a major timber importer, depends on foreign wood for 80 percent of its domestic consumption. The country has developed a system to use satellite images to monitor logging in Indonesia, the principal exporter to Japan.

This system offers a means to detect where illegal logging is taking place in Indonesia's vast tropical forests.

Japan is also working on a system to track the movements of timber products through distribution channels.

Under this system, certification labels are attached to legally logged timber to exclude unlawfully felled trees from the supply chain.

There are many other ways that Japan can offer technological support to crack down on illegal logging. Japan should first accomplish results in Asia and then spread the measures around the world while making constant improvements.

The urgent challenge of stopping forest destruction in developing countries through wisdom and technology should be a main pillar in Japan's environmental diplomacy.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 3(IHT/Asahi: November 4,2008)