Q&A: 17 Percent of the Problem, but 30 Percent of the Solution

If forest loss continues at the current rate, it will be impossible to keep warming below two degrees Celsius as pledged in the Paris Agreement. Credit: José Garth Medina/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

From expansive evergreen forests to lush tropical forests, the Earth’s forests are disappearing on a massive scale. While deforestation poses a significant problem to the environment and climate, trees also offer a solution.

After a series of eye-opening reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) were published in 2018, it was clear that international action is more urgent than ever to reduce emissions and conserve the environment.

Deforestation and forest degradation account for approximately 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector.

Tropical deforestation alone accounts for 8 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If it were a country, it would be the world’s third-biggest emitter, just behind China and the United States of America.

In fact, according to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the land-use sector represents between 25 to 30 percent of total global emissions.

If such forest loss continues at the current rate, it will be impossible to keep warming below two degrees Celsius as pledged in the Paris Agreement.

While forests represent a quarter of all planned emissions reductions under Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, there is still a long way to go to fulfil these goals.

The United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) is among the international groups working to reverse deforestation. It supports countries’ REDD+ processes, a mechanism established to promote conservation and sustainable management of forests.

IPS spoke with UNEP’s Coordinator of Freshwater, Land, and Climate Branch Tim Christophersen about the issues and solutions surrounding deforestation. Excerpts of the interview follow:

Inter Press Service (IPS): What is the current state of deforestation globally?

Tim Christophersen: The rate of deforestation has slowed since 2000 globally. At some point, it had even slowed by about 50 percent. We still have a lot of deforestation—it’s just that the rate has gone down so that’s partially good news.

The good news side is we see a lot of restoration and reemergence of forests on deforested land. But often those forests of course cannot replace the biodiversity or ecosystem values that they once had.

The bad news is that in some countries, deforestation has accelerated.

This picture is mixed but it is not all gloom and doom.

IPS: Where have you seen improvements and what cases are most concerning to you? 

TC: In general, the picture is quite positive in Europe where forest area is increasing by a million hectares per year.

In Asia and the Pacific, the picture is quite mixed with China investing heavily in restoration and planting millions of hectares of new forests and other countries such as Myanmar where the pace of deforestation is accelerating.

Recently, an area of concern is of course Brazil with changes in leadership there that will probably weaken protections of the Amazon rainforest. We expect they might not be able to keep their positive track record that they had especially in the years between 2007-2012 where deforestation of the Amazon dropped by 70 percent.

IPS: What has UN-REDD and REDD+’s role in this issue? What are some successful case studies or stories that REDD had a direct role in? 

TC: REDD has, for example, put the issue of indigenous rights front and center to the entire debate about forests and land use.

That is largely thanks to the strong role of indigenous communities in the climate discussions and the strong safeguards that were part of the REDD+ package. So these safeguards have triggered, also across other infrastructure projects, the knowledge and awareness of indigenous communities that they have rights, that they can determine national resource use within their jurisdictions—that was not so much the case before.

For example in Panama, we have worked together with indigenous communities to map forest cover and priority areas for REDD+ investments. In Ecuador, indigenous communities have been involved from the start in the design of the REDD+ framework.

There are [also] other potential buyers that are out there and willing to invest in verified and clearly demonstrated reductions in deforestation.

We have not seen the amount of funding flow into REDD+ that we had anticipated to date but it is picking up now. We also hope that more countries will come online with their emissions reductions that they properly verify with the UNFCC process.

The issue is that land use and forests are about 30 percent of the climate problem and solution—it is a problem that can be turned into a solution. It is currently causing 25 percent of emissions and it could absorb as much as one-third of all the emission sequestration that we need.

But it has only received about 3 percent of climate finance so there’s a huge mismatch between the opportunity that natural solutions provide and the funding that goes into it.

IPS: Over the last year including during the recent COP, many have brought up and discussed nature-based solutions. What are these, and what could such solutions look like on the ground? 

TC: Nature-based solutions are solutions to climate change or other challenges we face where we use the power of nature to restore or improve ecosystem services.

An example would be using forests for flood prevention or purification of drinking water for cities. This is quite widespread in fact but it is not always recognised. About one-third of all major cities in developing countries receive their drinking water from forested watersheds.

If we lose those forests, that would have detrimental impacts on a lot of people’s drinking water supply. It can often be cheaper or at least more cost-effective for cities, provinces or nations to invest in keeping and restoring their forests rather than other solutions for water purification or drinking water supply.

Another example that is often cited is the role of mangroves in storm protection in coastal areas. Again, this can be cheaper to invest in planting and conserving mangroves than building sea walls or other grey infrastructure projects that we have to increasingly invest in for climate adaptation.

IPS: There are many initiatives around the world that involve planting trees as a way to address climate change and land degradation and many have received mixed reviews in terms of its usefulness. Is it enough just to plant trees?

TC: Planting trees is never enough because trees are a bit like children—it’s not enough to put the in the world, you also have to make sure they grow up properly. That’s often overlooked that you cannot just plant trees and then leave them to their fate.

Because often the reasons for landscape degradation, for example overgrazing, will very quickly eliminate any trees that you plant. So it’s more about a longer-term, better natural resource management.

Planting trees can be one activity in a longer process of restoring degraded forests and landscapes.

There are other ecosystems that are also very important—peatlands, wetlands—but forests and trees will play a major role in the next decade. I am convinced there will be more and more investments into this area because if trees are planted and properly looked after, it is a huge opportunity for us to get back onto the 2 degree target in the Paris Agreement.

IPS: Since the planet is still growing in terms of population size and food needs, is there a way to reconcile development and land restoration? And do wealthier countries or even corporations have a responsibility to help with land restoration?

TC: Absolutely. I would even say land restoration on a significant scale is our only option to reconcile the need for increasing food production and meeting the other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well most notable goal 13 on climate action.

Without restoration, we are probably not going to achieve the Paris Agreement. That part of nature-based solutions, massive investments in ecosystem restoration is absolutely essential and we see that more and more corporations are recognising that.

The aviation industry is one of those potential buyers with their carbon reduction offset scheme which is called CORSIA.

It certainly is an option to channel financing for forest protection but there are of course limits as to how much emissions we can realistically offset.

Offsets are absolutely no replacement for very drastic, highly ambitious emission mitigation measures. We have to very drastically and quickly reduce industrial emissions.

Offsets can maybe tip the balance in favour of offsetting only those emissions that can otherwise not be reduced or avoided but they are not a replacement for strong action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all industrial sectors including agriculture.

The biggest part of corporate interest we see in restoration is from large agri commodity investors and food systems companies because they want to secure their supply chains and that’s quite encouraging.

*Interview has been edited for length and clarity

Quenching Humanity’s Freshwater Thirst Creates a Salty Threat

Desalination plant, UAE: http://bit.ly/2Rbco3H

By Edward Jones, Manzoor Qadir and Vladimir Smakhtin
HAMILTON, Canada, Jan 18 2019 (IPS)

Starting from a few, mostly Middle Eastern facilities in the 1960s, today almost 16,000 desalination plants are in operation in 177 countries, producing 95 million cubic meters of freshwater every day – equal to about half the flow over Niagara Falls.

Falling economic costs of desalination and the development in membrane technologies, particularly reverse osmosis, have made desalination a cost-competitive and attractive source of freshwater around the globe.

The increase in desalination has been driven by intensifying water scarcity due to rising water demands associated with population growth, increased water consumption per capita, and economic growth, coupled with diminishing water supplies due to climate change and contamination.

Worldwide, roughly half a billion people experience water scarcity year round; for 1.5 to 2 billion people water resources are insufficient to meet demands for at least part of the year. Desalination technologies can provide an unlimited, climate independent and steady supply of high quality water, predominantly used by the municipal and industrial sectors.

In particular, desalination is an essential technology in the Middle East and for small island nations which typically lack renewable water resources. In coming decades, according to predictions, the number of desalination plants will increase to quench a growing thirst for freshwater in homes, industrial facilities, and on farms.

This fast-growing number of plants, however, creates a salty dilemma: how to deal with all the chemical-laden leftover brine?

We analyzed a newly-updated dataset — the most complete ever compiled — to revise the world’s badly outdated statistics on desalination plants. Most startling was our finding that the volume of hypersaline brine produced overall is about 50% more than previously estimated.

Globally, plants now discharge 142 million cubic meters of hypersaline brine every day — enough in a single year (51.8 billion cubic meters) to cover Florida under 1 foot (30.5 cm) of brine.

Considered another way, the data shows that for every unit of freshwater output, desalination plants produce on average 1.5 units of brine (though values vary dramatically, depending on the feedwater salinity, the desalination technology used, and local conditions).

Some two-thirds of desalination plants are in high-income countries, with capacity concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa. And over half — 55% — of global brine is produced in just four countries: Saudi Arabia (22%), UAE (20.2%), Kuwait (6.6%) and Qatar (5.8%).

Middle Eastern plants, which largely operate using seawater and thermal desalination technologies, typically produce four times as much brine per cubic meter of clean water as plants where river water membrane processes dominate, such as in the US.

Brine disposal methods, meanwhile, are largely dictated by geography but traditionally include direct discharge into oceans, surface water or sewers, deep well injection and brine evaporation ponds.

Desalination plants near the ocean (almost 80% of brine is produced within 10km of a coastline) most often discharge untreated waste brine directly back into the marine environment.

Brine raises the salinity of the receiving seawater, and brine underflows deplete dissolved oxygen needed to sustain life in the marine environment. This high salinity and reduced levels of dissolved oxygen can have profound impacts on marine ecosystems and organisms, especially those living on the seafloor, which can translate into ecological effects observable throughout the food chain.

Furthermore, the oceans are polluted with toxic chemicals used as anti-scalants and anti-foulants in the desalination process (copper and chlorine are of major concern).

There is a clear need for improved brine management strategies to meet this rising challenge. This is particularly important in countries producing large volumes of brine with relatively low efficiencies, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.

In fact, we can convert this environmental problem into an economic opportunity. Brine has many potential uses, offering commercial, social and environmental gains.

It has been used for aquaculture, with increases in fish biomass of 300% achieved. It has also been successfully used to irrigate salt tolerant species, to cultivate the dietary supplement Spirulina, to generate electricity, and to irrigate forage shrubs and crops (although this latter use can cause progressive land salinization).

With improved technologies, a large number of metals, salt and other minerals in desalination plant effluent could be mined.

These include sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bromine, boron, strontium, lithium, rubidium and uranium, all used by industry, in products, and in agriculture.

The needed technologies are immature, however; recovery of these resources is economically uncompetitive today.

UNU-INWEH is actively pursuing research and ideas related to a variety of unconventional water sources, all of which need to be scaled up urgently to meet the even greater deficit in freshwater supplies looming in much of the world.

In particular, we need to make desalination technologies more affordable and extend them to low-income and lower-middle income countries.

Thankfully, costs are falling from continued improvements in membrane technologies, energy recovery systems, and the coupling of desalination plants with renewable energy sources.

At the same time, we have to address potentially severe downsides of desalination — the harm of brine and chemical pollution to the marine environment and human health.

The good news is that efforts have been made in recent years and, with continuing technology refinement and improving economic affordability, we see a positive and promising outlook.