Editor’s Note: The Nature Conservancy’s senior Forest Carbon scientist, Bronson Griscom, crazy science guy that he is, recently made the decision that — “before he bursts” – it was time to share with the world his love for Forest Carbon. We learned this to be true upon mysteriously receiving his diary via interoffice mail, which was enclosed with a brief note. Admittedly, none of us were surprised when we discovered this was going on. We’d seen the way Griscom looked at forests before and our suspicions were validated when we learned Griscom had indeed been stealing away to study forests for years – even going so far as to receive a Ph.D. in tropical forest ecology. That fact, combined with Griscom’s dashing good looks (think a combo of Buzz Lightyear and Jim Carrey … or, you be the judge) and seemingly infinite charm and we knew this romance might be the real thing.
Entry #1: First Love
I have a confession: I’ve fallen in love with Forest Carbon. I know this sounds like a bizarre emotional complex of a high school nerd with a history of imaginary friends. And maybe that’s not far from the mark. But, oh! Her mystery. Her sublime beauty. I see her everywhere, and in everything. Yesterday, I binged on some Ben and Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch ice cream, and I daydreamed about the Forest Carbon in that scrumptious treat that came from a big ball of Brazil nuts sparkling with rain drops high in the canopy of a massive tree deep in the Amazon, with bright red macaws squawking overhead in the morning sun. And from just below come those luscious chunks of chocolate from an understory tree laden with the voluptuous cacao fruit. This instant, I’m exhaling a gazillion Forest Carbon molecules with every breath. Sigh. Forest Carbon, thou art now the world’s freshest ornament! That’s Shakespeare by the way.
But hold on, Forest Carbon is so much more than nuts in trees. My love for her is profound, not some flimsy daydream. Carbon is the basic building block of all life. It cycles through plants and animals and you and me. It’s both the hard physical substance in wood and bones and the mushy substance in our stomachs (sorry, I went there). That’s why she’s everything to me. I am Forest Carbon. And Forest Carbon is me. And, she’s not just Life with a capital “L,” she’s also a mysterious ethereal substance that flows around me. She floats above me and protects me, as invisible down stuffing in planet Earth’s atmosphere. She’s Earth’s duvet cover.
In fact, it’s rather nice there’s all this lovely carbon, among other gasses, in the air keeping things toasty. Otherwise you and I would be frozen blocks at minus-455 degrees Fahrenheit. The only problem is we need a bit more carbon back down here on the ground in the form of trees. In other words, we burn down too many trees for production lands and we burn too many fossilized trees, called fossil fuels, for our cars. Too much wood is turning into too much of that invisible down stuffing in the atmosphere. And that’s why they are calling it carbon pollution. It’s not that carbon itself is bad, it’s where we are putting it that’s the problem. Put more of it in the right place, like trees, and carbon is the solution.
I fell in love with my goddess, Forest Carbon, when I fell in love with big trees. All those majestic vessels of living carbon, the lungs of our planet, the skyscrapers of biodiversity and sources of income for millions of forest communities. And if those big trees are allowed to stand and regenerate, they offer the most simple and most exciting solution to fighting carbon pollution because trees eat the carbon that’s in the air (carbon dioxide that is). Free of charge, they suck in that gaseous stuffing in our Earth’s over-stuffed duvet through countless tiny turgid mouths (stomata) in their leaves. And they turn that gas into beautiful wood and fruit and flowers, and then pass it on to the birds and the bees and us. What could be better?
Well, what could be better is if we started to value Forest Carbon as a fix for climate change and if more people understood her. To know her is to love her. Why do we seem to think there are only complicated technology fixes to climate change? A few years ago, Richard Branson offered a $25 million dollar prize to whoever could come up with the cheapest technology that would absorb at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere. Well Mr. Branson, here’s a tip from Dr. Bronson: Nobody can claim that juicy prize because the winning technology was invented a couple hundred million years ago. It’s a self-replicating solar powered nano-technology machine that eats carbon dioxide and turns it into a beautiful, light, strong, and biodegradable structural material for whatever you want to build. And it spits out oxygen. As if that’s not enough, it also cleans water in the process. Oh yeah, and it’s free!
Bottom line: trees far exceed any human technology for soaking up carbon, among other industrial services. So, what about giving that $25 million to forest conservation? Well, that’s pretty much the idea behind a concept called REDD: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Yeah, bummer, another acronym, but if you think you might also love the goddess Forest Carbon, we need to make REDD happen.
REDD is about more than just paying someone to plant a tree and walk away. It’s about creating a system of incentives for farmers and local communities and governments to protect and nurture their forests over the long term, especially in the tropics where most of the forest destruction is happening these days – causing more carbon pollution than all the trains, planes, and automobiles on earth.
Rural communities can determine the fate of the forest and we need to be able to make REDD economically attractive to them. Sadly, right now many of these communities are driven to clear forests to make a decent living, even though they depend upon their forests over the long term for all kinds of things like food, medicines, and clean water. REDD incentives can tip the balance, and make forest conservation and improved forest management a viable livelihood.
Here’s an example: a coal company in the U.S. seeking to reduce its carbon pollution invests in a forest conservation project in Brazil where a portion of the money flows to rural communities who live around the forestland. These communities in turn commit to intensifying their cattle pasture so that fewer acres are needed for beef and a portion of the pasture can be restored to native timber trees with a plantation of cacao trees growing beneath the canopy. The “project developer” might be an environmental organization (The Nature Conservancy has a number of REDD projects in tropical forest countries all over the world) providing local communities with the funding and training they need to make the shift. In addition, some of the money from that investment goes to scientifically monitoring deforestation to make sure the forest carbon emissions really have decreased before carbon reductions can be credited. With the right accounting practices and economic incentives, the project can help the host country (e.g. Brazil) and the other stakeholders in the deal (e.g. the U.S. coal company) reduce carbon pollution while at the same time establishing more sustainable business practices for local communities.
So, we can do this by linking the basic building block of our economy (the greenback) with the basic building block of life (green carbon). Right now it’s like we’re gunning the engine but the car is shaking and shuddering because we don’t know how to use the clutch – the gears are grinding away at each other. In particular the greenback gear is chewing up the green carbon gear. It’s getting hot, lights are blinking everywhere, and this baby could fall apart if we don’t figure things out. So, we need to get these two gears in the right groove. We can start by putting a value on carbon, so that it costs something when we dump carbon in the atmosphere, and folks get something in return when they nurture forests that suck it out of the atmosphere. That’s what REDD is.
It’s not just me with my Forest Carbon love-goggled eyes talking. Analysts at a business consulting company called McKinsey have figured out that it’s a lot cheaper to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through forest conservation than it is through high tech solutions (like Carbon Capture and Storage) to reduce carbon pollution coming out of the smokestacks of electric power plants.
So, do you understand why I love Forest Carbon so much? Do you understand why I love REDD? Climate change is scary. But if we can learn to use that clutch, we could be listening to the soft purr of the engine as we drive off into the sunset with the roof down and our arm around the goddess Forest Carbon.
Bronson Griscom is Senior Forest Carbon Scientist at The Nature Conservancy.
Photo by: Bambang Wahyudi/The Nature Conservancy (Bronson on a bridge in Borneo)
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