The Need for Trees

I have some friends who are deeply involved in the developing ideology of Non Violent Communication, which sounds very touchy feely, user friendly, wholesome and the like to me. By and large I think that it mostly is but I have some doubts, too. C kept hauling me back when I spoke of our “collective need for action”. She talked of individuals’ needs and each seeking their progress through non violent persuasion. But I cannot help feeling that we have over-riding, collective needs and that we should seek to resolve this, rather than breaking it down into a host of tiny individual wishes.

It’s a fact of life that we only notice change in our environments. If things don’t change then we carry on as ever and barely think of what’s around us. As climate activists we take a global view. Trees fix CO2 and they’re good. Cutting down trees stops this and so is bad. Furthermore the CO2 tied up in these felled trees is often released, adding to the three trillion tonnes up there in our atmosphere. So “save the rainforests” is the cry and a very worthy cry it is, too. But wait on, what are we actually saving?

Ten thousand years back we were recovering from the most recent ice age and tree cover likewise was returning to its optimum, sending seeds from protected warmer, lowland and more equatorial regions out to the more far flung regions, slowly being released from permafrost. When achieved, this was a forest cover of twice what we have now. So much of it was on land we now know as fields, Moorland or even further degraded areas, even desert, as well as developed for other human activities like towns, roads and so on. This forest once stored 1600 Billion Tonnes of carbon ; so we have returned some 800BT carbon to the atmosphere. The equivalent of 150 parts per million CO2.

It’s not all still there, of course, although it’s hard to work out what percentage still is. We have to look at carbonic acid and bicarbonates, plus shellfish, algal decay, river estuarine clearance and deposits, peat accumulation and other leakages. But, sure as anything, were we not living as well – were we not living at all (!) – those trees would still be there and there would be a far more buoyant, better buffered atmosphere. Without being at all Gaeist, if we had a greater tree cover in ecological stasis this buffering effect on atmospheric carbon would clearly be far greater. The norm would be maintained far better – increased CO2 would be readily absorbed and scarcity made up. [Talk to James Lovelock!]

The daftest thing, however, is when you have to discuss ice ages. CO2 plummets during an ice age. How? Why, then? Well when, then? OK, lets leave that one on the intray and think “How the Hell do we get out of an ice age?” Volcanoes release climate change gases. But we just can’t show the appropriate mega blow-outs in the historical record. Sunspots? Likewise. Human’s burning fossil fuel? Oh, no, we weren’t that smart, were we?

Marchitto and Lehman, of the Boulder Institute, Colorado University, describe two whopping great belches of CO2 in the late glacial and early post glacial periods as the answer. Ocean burps! All that debris, rotted, maybe pH changed and, all of a sudden Neptune could contain himself no longer. Well have you got a better explanation? They do cite evidence, based on deep ocean sediments, which do hold true. Anyway, if you accept the logic then maybe you can extrapolate backwards and say “If all that carbon can be belched out of the ocean, as methane, carbon di oxide etc, then presumably it had to get there, first. Thus the spiral down into the ice age could be seen as the gradual deposition of global carbon under the oceans – and probably as peat, too, which was subsequently pushed south and into the oceans by the glaciation. It holds true as, unlike today, there was no additional carbon entering the system. It’s often said that we are due an ice age now, and not “Global Warming”. This is a reasoning for that prediction.

So we’ve corrupted the cycle and, if we’re avoiding an ice age, then surely we’re doing rather well, aren’t we? Well, no, actually, for two fairly clear reasons:
Firstly it seems that the ever increasing levels of greenhouse gases are inexorably leading to uncontrollable and fairly unpredictable changes to our collective ecosystem and secondly, as alluded to above, we have stripped away much of the natural buffering in that system.

We’ve got little control as things stand at the moment, although we could, in fact, now go on to develop such in a profoundly sustainable manner. I’ve said this until I’m blue in the face, and will go on saying it. We must face this issue. We should realise that “Yes, we do hold our futures and our children’s futures in our hands”. We can now start to build up all these rational futures based on these understandings.

With few trees to absorb the excess atmospheric CO2 little will remain in the ecosystem. In time it will be carbonated, leaving the natural cycle. We can continue to release fossil carbon to maintain current climates although we are already in such a steep learning curve and no-one knows where current CO2 levels will take us. Or we can begin a remoulding of our Global Society. Act Globally, think locally, or was it the other way round? Either way it sure is what we need now. If we can move to restore forests, woodlands and just trees to the marginal lands on a global basis our collective futures seem oh so much more sustainable.

Marginal farming can evolve and be supported to do so. The resultant environment will be thriving, productive and climate saving. It can be a truly Global campaign and will result in bolstered communities, far greater, new employment, more local self reliance, a wonderful collective connectivity, based on a shared, international movement.

For too long peasant , subsistence farmers have eked out a living and often driven , through the tragedy of the commons (TOTC), an overall decline in the fertility of the land. Instead of ignoring them or, as in the west, subsidising them to overproduce livestock and intensify the desertification of their lands, we should work with them to build these precious areas into the lifesaving and sustaining resource they truly can be. This is no small discussion, it’s probably 15% of the Global land surface area (LSA) or more if we can also drive back some of the deserts that have already arisen*.

For calculations here think total LSA and one quarter of it now forest. [Say!] If we add two thirds of that marginal land to forest/woodland then we’re adding 10 per cent of LSA which is 40 % of current forest. This is 40%x800BT = 320 billion tonnes of Carbon newly stored which equivalates to 320×150% atmospheric carbon = 480 BT (or roughly 60 ppm) fixed and managed for a sustainable future. Of those billions we can easily establish one or two here in the UK. Much less than 1%. Trivial, unimportant? If you take that stance then you continue with the TOTC and we’ll never solve the problem. We must all do our bit and if we work together then everyone benefits.

That’s “The Need for Trees”. In a nutshell!

* = Recent reports show that this is being achieved in China, the only country in the World which is tackling this issue with any commitment. Read my discussion of this work in “Chinese forest planting – facts, figures, fantasies and futures”. [7 2 2011]

Two further areas for consideration.

1. The uptake of CO2 by existing forests – especially tropical rainforests.
2. The production of charcoal.

1. Dr Simon Lewis, Leeds University and Climate Camp UK, suggests a movement of carbon into the remaining forests through their uptake of additional bulk, over and above that which they would normally use. We are talking of an additionality of say three to four billion tonnes of carbon here, which is a couple of million hectares growing at full pelt eg post coppicing or early maturity of planted forest. An area akin to that of Wales. These do not exist and so we have to envisage this growth incorporated into the sustainably increased bulk of existing mature forests. On an annual basis. As remaining forests shrink. It works out at conveniently at one tonne per hectare of existing forest. 10 kg per tree, even. That’s all forest. Globally. Annually. No further comment except that this is based on various canopy and trunk measurements over the last twenty or so years. Some folk agree, some don’t. I’d love to know the foresters’ take on it. Increased bulk? Increased yields? Do they notice? Could they measure this?

Certainly in Jurassic times at much higher CO2 concentrations and higher temperatures (obviously!) tree bulk was greater but I would expect marginal if any changes from the small CO2 (300ppm to 400ppm may trap a lot more heat but biologically it is still at a low atmospheric concentration) and temperature differences we have seen. Not the high levels as Dr Lewis suggests but, hey, I’ve not done the measuring and Simon seems an honest fellow.

2. Charcoal is a way to incorporate coppice wood into the soil and other associated thinking. This area is explored and pushed by Chris Turney of Exeter University, apparently as a result of a childhood vision or dream, and “Biochar” a New Zealand based company. Yeah, coppice away. I fully support that and make an emphasis of the benefits of active management of all new woodland. The more C fixation that can be encouraged the better and an established temperate coppice will grow at 15 tonnes per hectare per annum (eg Kentish chestnuts) (And see 1. above!). For ever with replanting as and when required. I doubt, however, that biochar incorporation into soil will ever be a major hit in the new economies, unless a whole new state supported trade develops. “Here’s Jimmy. He’s the village charcoal incorporator. He’ll scatter a few tonnes over yon fields this afternoon, as he always does. Don’t you love these black soils. They grow wonderful leeks, you know……….”


About greencentre

Non grant supported hence independent scientist, green activist, writer and forest planter.
This entry was posted in Buffering the terrestrial carbon cycle, Carbon belch - post glacial, Carbon sinks, Charcoal, Climate carbon history, Climate chemistry, Climate politics, Gaia, Green politics,, James Lovelock, New forests and woodland, Non violent communication, Rainforest, Sheep and cattle farming. Bookmark the permalink.

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