First ‘International Forest Day’ celebrates today


Today, 21st March, is the International Day of Forests. The importance of the forests has increased in this era of Climate Change as forests are perhaps the greatest Carbon Sinks that removes atmospheric Carbon Dioxide leading the way of the fight against Global Warming.  This date was agreed by the UN General Assembly in November last year so that every year there would be one day set aside to “celebrate and raise awareness” of forests.

Forest(c) Greenpeace

Forest is a valuable Ecosystem (c) Greenpeace

Sri Lanka is considered as a global Biodiversity Hotspot and the diversity of life in forests contributes much for claiming this prestigious status. The Tropical Wet Lowland Evergreen Rainforests and the cloud forests (tropical moist evergreen forest) in hill country of Sri Lanka is home for about 80% of the Endemic fauna and flora of Sri Lanka. But sadly, majority of the protected areas of Sri Lanka are from Dry Zone despite the  remaining forests in Wet Zone and central highlands are severely threatened by Encroachment.

Forget the little creatures inhabit in this habitats. Forests perform lots of valuable Ecosystem Services that helps to regulates lots of systems support humanity and our survival.

First of all, forest regulates the climate. Statistics show that forests store nearly 300 billion tonnes of carbon in their living parts. This is roughly 40 times the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels. Deforestation accounts for approximately the same amount of climate pollution as all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined. So, from a climate point of view it’s better to keep the GHGs where they are by preserving and protecting the forests, says Greenpeace.

The world’s fight against climate change has placed a special emphasis on protecting the world’s remaining forests. This has given rise to a concept called “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD). According to this mechanism, there is a set of steps designed to use market/financial incentives to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases from deforestation and forest degradation.

In simpler terms, REDD is a mechanism to financially reward commitments by developing forested nations to stop deforestation/forest degradation and enhancing forest carbon stocks that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing the more important role of forests, this programme has become REDD+ where the ‘plus’ goes beyond deforestation, also including the role of conservation, sustainable management aiming to protect forest biodiversity too.

REDD implementation is expected to take place in a post-2012 climate regime, and global level discussions are currently being held to finalize the mechanism. The World Bank and the United Nations have launched a programme (REDD readiness) to support developing countries to develop capacity to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and to implement a future REDD mechanism.

In theory, this can bring multiple benefits to Sri Lanka so it is worth evaluating the opportunities of REDD and getting ready before it is too late. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol which is a global agreement to reduce green house gas emissions also held similar promise, but Sri Lanka was late to act on it. Are we on top of this new forest initiative ?

The UN-REDD Programme initially works with nine member countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America: Bolivia, Congo, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia. It was announced that Sri Lanka has been admitted to the ‘United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) Programme’ in October 2009. Since then Sri Lanka has been granted observer status to the UN-REDD programme and is currently in the process of doing the ground work for REDD.

Image on deforestation. Courtesy UN REDD

“Getting ready for the REDD is not an easy task, but the REDD-Readiness process alone will provide benefits to Sri Lanka,” says Conservator of Forests of the Forest Department Anura Sathurusinghe who is also the REDD focal point for Sri Lanka.

There is much data and information to be collected before formulation of REDD projects. The first phase of REDD-readiness includes formulating of National REDD Strategy development, capacity building, institutional strengthening along with many other pilot activities.

An accurate national inventory of forest resources of the country is essential information needed for the REDD programme as it will help in estimating the amount of carbon contained in these forests. This carbon measurement process has already started with a team of experts currently evaluating the carbon stocks of different forest types in Sri Lanka. Other than the forests, agricultural lands such as rubber, coconut and forest plantations (such as Eucalyptus) and also home gardens are studied through different methods to estimate their stock of carbon.

Experts also point out the many drawbacks that could hinder the success of these REDD mechanisms including cost of certification, lack of a comprehensive database on quantification of GHG emission reductions by existing forests and some areas of the process that are still not clear etc.

That some of the forests are managed by the Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation which is now outside of the Environmental Ministry also would require coordination between ministries.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane agrees that the REDD initiative could bring benefits to the country by reducing deforestation if properly implemented. He pointed out that the government will also be bound to protect the forests as a result of the agreement.

Many of Sri Lanka’s leading environmentalists were against the previous attempt to introduce the Tropical Forest Conservation (TFC) Act by the United States which proposed the swap of debts for protection activities of Sinharaja forest. “TFC was between two countries which was not transparent, while REDD will be governed by an international agreement; so there is no complaint at this stage although we need to evaluate future developments carefully,” Mr. Gunawardane said.

Kanneliya absorbs more carbon than Sinharaja

Prof. Janendra Costa, has already completed the estimation of carbon absorption rates of Sinharaja and the Kanneliya-Dediyagala-Nakiyadeniya (KDN) forest complex. The total carbon stock of Sinharaja is 305 metric tons of carbon per hectare while KDN records 312. Carbon stock is the amount of carbon in the standing biomass (mass of organic matter) of the forest at a given point of time.

It is the result of carbon sequestration over a large number of years where the Carbon sequestration rate is defined as the amount of carbon that the forest would absorb (through photosynthesis) and retain during a given period of time.

It is the carbon sequestration rate (through absorbing atmospheric CO2) that is important for REDD+ because it is the parameter that represents the contribution from a forest to climate change mitigation. This annual carbon sequestration rate (metric tons of carbon per hectare per year) is 8.953 in KDN while in Sinharaja it is 7.403.

An interesting finding is that the total annual carbon dioxide absorption rate (million metric tons of CO2 per year) of KDN is higher than the Sinharaja Man and Biosphere forest reserve.

Prof. De Costa points out this is primarily because KDN is located in a slightly warmer environment, which receives a slightly greater amount of solar radiation (both of which are because KDN is located slightly closer to the Equator), which enables a slightly greater photosynthetic rate. The research also revealed Sinharaja absorbs 2.52% of Sri Lanka’s total annual CO2 emissions and KDN absorbs 3.26%.

In comparison to the CO2 absorption rates of these two tropical rainforests, Prof. Costa expects the CO2 absorption rates of the dry zone forests and montane forests (e.g. Horton Plains, part of Knuckles and the Peak Wilderness) to be lower.

He suggests that in the dry zone forests, the tree density is lower and because of the warmer temperatures a greater percentage of absorbed carbon would be released again due to greater respiration.

So let’s all understand the value of forests and protect them – if not for Biodiversity; for our own sake..!!!

Message of the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity on Occasion of International Forest Day

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