Forest Day: Forests can protect against the effects of climate change

By Dr Gurinder Kaur*

The International Forest Day is celebrated on March 21 since 1971 when the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) decided to recognize the importance of forests for humans, animals and birds. Forests are a precious gift of nature. They are the natural asset of any country on the basis of which a good economy can be built.

Forests are also called green gold because they cater to almost every human need. Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the air to make their own food through photosynthesis and produce oxygen for humans and other living things to breathe. They meet the nutritional needs of the human and animal population while providing habitat for wildlife. On Forest Day governments and society are made aware of the importance of forests.

In the honour of the upcoming Forest Day, it makes it important to look at the global landscape and analyze how government policies are impacting current and future generations. The city of Miami in the United States of America is in the midst of a controversy over its decision to cut down palm trees to replace them with shade trees. Under The Miami Beach Urban Forestry Master Plan(2020), Miami city administration has unanimously decided to cut down 25 per cent of the city’s palm trees by 2050 and replace them with dense shade trees such as Oak, Ash, Elm, and Sycamore. Currently about 55 per cent of the city’s trees are palm trees. The swaying palm trees add to the beauty of the city and are an integral part of the landscape. The city administration also uses photos of Palm trees for tourism advertisements adding to the charm of Miami. Despite all this, the city administration has decided to cut down the palm trees to protect Miami from the ill effects of rising temperature. As compared to Palm trees, densely shaded trees such as oak, ash, elm, and sycamore will help more prevent sea level rise, reduce city temperature rise, improve air quality, and absorb more carbon and rainwater.

For Miami, natural disasters that come with climate change are their reality and no longer a problem to be faced in the future. The city is annually facing some kind of natural disaster. The sea level in the coastal parts of the city has risen by 5 inches since 1993. According to some scientists, the sea level could rise another 6 inches. According to a 2018 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, if sea levels continue to rise at the current rate, 12,000 homes in Miami Beach will be severely flooded in the next 30 years, causing 6.4 billion in financial losses. Three years of study in cities of Baltimore, Richmond, Washington and some others by NOAA recorded that areas covered in concrete with few trees could be 17 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than shaded areas. The same study of NOAA, West Palm Beach near downtown was recorded at 122 degrees Fahrenheit in August 2020, while Grassy Waters Preserve near the wetland was only 92 degrees Fahrenheit, 30 degrees Fahrenheit lower due to trees and dense vegetation.

One of the reasons for cutting down palm trees and planting Oak, Ash, Elm, and Sycamore trees is that a live oak tree with a canopy of 100 feet can absorb and store 92 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, while a large palm tree with 15 to 20 fronds can absorb only one pound carbon dioxide in an year. To protect the city of Miami and its inhabitants from the effects of rising temperature and to reduce carbon emissions, the administration has decided to change the species of trees. The Miami City Plan also provides guidance for different types of trees to have different carbon absorption capacity. Therefore, we need to pay attention to the existence of trees, their species and forest cover and their maintenance.

According to a 2020 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization(FAO) of the United Nations, forests cover an area of ​​4.06 billion hectares, 31 per cent of the total area. The distribution of forests is not the same internationally. Some countries have more forest cover and some have less area. About 54 per cent of the total forest area is in the five countries – the Russian Federation (20.19 per cent), Brazil (12.2 per cent), Canada (8.5 per cent), the United States of America (7.6 per cent), and China (5.4 per cent) and 16 per cent in Australia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Peru, and India. On the other hand, 11 countries, such as Niger, Algeria, Bahrain, Iceland and others have less than one per cent forest cover. Greenland, Qatar, Nauru, and San Marino have no forests at all.

Forests are called the lungs of the earth. These natural plants produce an infinite amount of oxygen. Forests use the carbon dioxide which we produce through various processes to make our own food. Forests also contribute to the prevention of global warming by absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Forests absorb excess rainwater through their roots, increasing groundwater levels as well as protecting them from flooding. Their roots prevent the soil from eroding. Different types of trees provide shelter to animals and birds and also increase biodiversity, but nowadays man has become very selfish. Humans are indiscriminately cutting down forests for their own narrow interests. According to a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 178 million hectares have been deforested in the last three decades. During the period 2015-2020, deforestation was done from 10 million hectares per annum which is only 2 million hectares less than 12 million hectares per year during 2010-2015. According to the report, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Angola, Paraguay, Cambodia, Bolivia and other countries have witnessed the highest deforestation in the last ten years.

Growing populations are generally considered to be the main cause of deforestation because everyone needs food and shelter. Statistics show that deforestation in the recent decades has not been done to meet the basic needs of the people, such as food and shelter, but to expand commercial agriculture on a large scale. Commercial agriculture mainly includes animal husbandry, soybean, and palm cultivation. The need for commercial agriculture stems from the altered food choices of rich countries. Most of the food is being cut down in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, but it is being used by high-income European and North American countries. Livestock, palm, and soybean cultivation are responsible for 60 per cent deforestation and are also having a detrimental effect on the environment.

Deforestation provides habitats and pastures for animals to be eaten as food. This process significantly increases the amount of two gases in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide (by animal’s respiration) and methane (by animal’s digestion). Both of these gases are important gases that raise temperature. Methane gas is capable of heating the atmosphere 25 times more than carbon dioxide. One animal emits 220 pounds of methane gas each year. A study by Davis UC revealed that animals are responsible for producing 14.5 per cent of the total greenhouse gases. Old and dense canopy trees in forests can absorb more carbon dioxide than pastures and fodder crops. More than 75 per cent of soybeans are grown for animal feed.

The food industry associated with commercial agriculture is likely to have a severe impact on the environment in the near future. Big companies and banks are now investing heavily in this industry. For them, it remains an important source of profit. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank has invested $450 million in Brazilian meat packaging companies since 2016. In addition, Rabobank, Morgan Stanley, Barclays, Goldman Sachs and others are investing heavily in commercial agriculture, which is directly and indirectly linked to deforestation and high carbon dioxide production. With the rapid deforestation, temperatures are already rising rapidly. According to a NOAA report dated January 14, 2021, the average temperature of the earth is 1 degree Celsius higher than at the time of the Industrial Revolution. An international team of scientists has revealed in a new study, released on March 10, 2021, that a half-degree Celsius rise in temperature could significantly increase the number of wildfires and the depth of their fire which will further reduce the forest area. The forest fires and the declining area under them will further increase the temperature.

The existence of forests is very important for human and animal life, but humans are endangering themselves by cutting them down for their own petty interests. Although the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) decided in 1971 to observe The World Forest Day to save forests, large-scale deforestation is still taking place. With the declining area of ​​forests, humans are getting closer to the wild animals and also taking germs of various diseases from them. Humans have to increase the area under forests to protect themselves from all kinds of environmental degradation. In order to control the rise in temperature, local trees should be given preference over beautiful trees like the city of Miami. Brazil, a country in South America, needs guidance from countries in Africa. African countries have launched a campaign to plant 1 billion trees in a 5,000-mile-long and 9-mile-wide area from Senegal on the west coast of the African continent to Djibouti on the east coast in a bid to tackle the climate crisis. According to the Paris Climate Agreement, unnecessary changes in food should be prevented to prevent temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius so that indiscriminate deforestation in the name of commercial farming must not be allowed. Heavy investment by large companies and banks in commercial agriculture should be stopped in order to save forests and prevent natural disasters due to rising temperature.

* Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala

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