The future of our forests

2011 has been declared the International Year of Forests. Malaka Rodrigo reports on the new international mechanism REDD+ that aims to reduce deforestation and Sri Lanka’s REDD readiness

Historical accounts suggest that more than 75% of Sri Lanka was once covered by forest. But since the British colonial era, there has been mass scale clearing of forests largely for agricultural expansion. Infrastructure development, destructive logging and encroachment even of protected areas continue to fuel deforestation, resulting in a shocking reduction of Sri Lanka’s closed canopy of forest cover to 22% of the country’s total land area in 1999.

A previous survey done in 1992 recorded the forest cover as 24% indicating an alarming rate of deforestation. Meanwhile other factors such as fragmentation too have resulted in the degradation of our forests.

The question is can Sri Lanka afford to lose more forests?

Deforestation and Forest Degradation have already become global issues. We all know that forests play an important role in protecting watersheds, preventing erosion, providing refuge for 80% of terrestrial species and meeting many human needs but how many are aware that forests also play an important role in regulating the earth’s climate?

A misty morning at Kanneliya

It is estimated that the world’s forests are a mega storage of 2,400 gigatonnes of carbon accounting for half the terrestrial carbon pool. Destruction of these forests can emit this carbon into the atmosphere in the form of Green House Gases such as Carbon Dioxide or kill the opportunity to keep the gases trapped, fuelling global warming that ultimately leads to Climate Change. Deforestation is already found to be responsible for 20% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector.

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.

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