Tropical forests[i] are nature’s most powerful carbon sinks, absorbing harmful greenhouse gas emissions through photosynthesis. When they’re destroyed, therefore, these sinks release all that stored carbon back into the environment; in fact, a landmark 2017 study[ii] determined that tropical forests now release more carbon[iii] than they absorb[iv] due to deforestation.
Tropical forests thus present a “win-win” or “lose-lose” scenario, a key reason why Drawdown lists tropical forests as #5[v] in its ranking of the 100 best climate change solutions.
What Are Tropical Forests?
Tropical forests are located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, which themselves are located 23.5° latitude north and south of the equator.[vi]. While these natural wonders once covered 12% of the Earth’s surface, human activity has reduced that percentage to 5%.[vii] Nevertheless, these areas still hold approximately 25% of the world’s carbon[viii]; the Amazon basin alone holds as much as 90-140 billion tons.
The Dangers of Deforestation and the Potential of Preservation
Deforestation currently comprises anywhere between 10[ix]-20[x]% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 70% of this deforestation[xi] occurs in the production of less than a handful of products: beef, timber, palm oil, and soy. Worryingly, 2016 and 2017 saw more tree loss than any previous years on record[xii]: an area approximately the size of Vietnam.
That said, deforestation policies work when the will to implement is there. One of the most successful of these occurred in Brazil, where a multi-pronged approach[xiii] resulted in an 80% drop in deforestation from 2004-12.
Forests are also far more resilient than previously thought, able to undo much of the damage caused by forest clearings. In only 66 years, for instance, researchers have found that regenerated tropical forests recover 90% of the diverse biomass found in old-growth forests.[xiv]
Two ambitious challenges suggest just how fruitful such policies can be. The 2011 Bonn Challenge and the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests collectively aim to restore nearly 450 million acres, which would not only result in sequestering 61.2 gigatons of CO2 by 2050 but also save money through watershed protection and improved crop yields.[xv]
What You Can Do to Save Our Tropical Forests
You can support the preservation and regeneration of tropical forests in a variety of ways, due to the intersectionality of the forests’ future with other crucial environmental and social issues.
Consider boycotting or pressuring companies that sell the “big 4” — cattle, timber, palm oil, and soy — to make or honor commitments to address deforestation. By 2017, nearly 450 companies[xvi] made such commitments, but enforcement is spotty at best.[xvii]
You can also campaign on behalf of indigenous land rights. Studies indicate[xviii] that the preservation and regeneration of tropical forests are more successful when indigenous cultures have influence over land policy, primarily because these communities are less likely to be in partnership with agribusiness than governments.
Tropical forests are not only one of our most diverse and beautiful natural resources, but their survival is intricately linked with our own. We must protect them.
Related LEED® v4 Credits:
- LEED BD+C, SSc Site Development – Protect or Restore Habitat (1-2 pts)
- LEED BD+C, MRc Building Product Disclosure and Optimization – Sourcing of Raw Materials (1-2 pts)
[i] The UN Food and Agricultural Organization defines a forest as “a land area of more than 0.5 ha, with a tree canopy cover of more than 10%, which is not primarily under agricultural or other specific non-forest land use.” https://www.cbd.int/forest/definitions.shtml
[x] Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, ed. Paul Hawken, Penguin Books (2017), 114.
[xiv] Drawdown, 115.
[xv] Ibid, 116.