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REDD Dawn: The Birth Of Forest Carbon

By Steve Zwick Ecosystem Marketplace 

Governments around the world will have pledged more than $7 billion to support “REDD”, which is an acronym for “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” of forests. The acronym covers a broad set of activities that aim to slow climate change by saving endangered forests and keeping carbon locked in trees. In this series, we examine the history of REDD and the evolving role of indigenous people.

 

Scientists had known about the greenhouse effect since the early 1900s, when Swedish scientist Svante August Arrhenius dubbed it the “hot-house” effect, but Keeling’s curve showed that CO2 levels were rising faster than most believed. As the curve continued to climb over the ensuing decades, so did interest in climate change.

By all accounts, REDD was born in 1988 – not so much to save the planet as to help poor farmers in Guatemala manage their land more sustainably. It’s germination, however, began three decades earlier, in 1958, at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. That’s where the late American scientist Charles Keeling started measuring the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – an exercise that eventually yielded the “Keeling Curve”: a diagonal line that zigzags upwards as CO2 levels increase year-to-year

The Keeling Curve: This is your planet on CO2. Source: Global Warming Art Project.

The upward slant continues to this day, while the zigzags reflect the rhythm of farms and forests in the Northern Hemisphere coming alive in summer, when they sponge up CO2, and falling dormant in the winter. If this natural rythm had such a pronounced effect on the atmosphere, scientists began to wonder, what impact does rampant deforestation have? How much of our greenhouse gasses come from industrial emissions, and how much form chopping trees?

“The long-term response, if such a catastrophe becomes imminent, must be to stop burning fossil fuels and convert our industry to renewable photosynthetic fuels, nuclear fuels, geothermal heat and direct solar-energy conversion,” he continued. “But a world-wide shift from fossil to non-fossil fuels could not be carried out in a few years… An emergency plant-growing program would provide the necessary short-term response to hold the CO2 at bay while the shift away from fossil fuels is being implemented.”

TREES AND CLIMATE CHANGE: AN EARLY DEFENSE

By the early 1970s, scientists were beginning to see climate change as a very real but distant threat – one that would eventually force us to completely restructure our industrial economy. Physicist Freeman Dyson was one of those who decided to get ahead of the challenge by looking for workable solutions.

“Suppose that, with the rising level of CO2, we run into an acute ecological disaster,” he wrote in a 1977 article entitled “Can We Control the Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere?“, published in the journal Energy. “Would it then be possible for us to halt or reverse the rise in CO2 within a few years by means less drastic than the shutdown of industrial civilization?”

His conclusion: yes, it would be possible to slow climate change by planting trees – but not as a permanent solution. Instead, he saw trees as a short-term, stopgap measure that would slow the process long enough for technology to catch up.

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