Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Another doomsday may need to be postponed.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has just published a new research on those “disappearing” forests we are always hearing about. And what they found is very important regarding a host of issues from economic development to global warming.

We have frequently heard it said that the rich nations of the world are plundering the planet leading to all sorts of bad things. For instance carbon in the atmosphere is believed to be a greenhouse gas. Trees absorb carbon and thus reduce the levels of greenhouse gases. So nations with decreasing forests contribute to global warming while nations with expanding forests reduce warming. The report notes that: “According to its carbon concentration the forest biomass withholds carbon dioxide that would add to greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.”

This new study says: “Among 50 nations with extensive forest reported in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s comprehensive Globe Forest Resources Assessment 2005, no nation where annual per capita gross domestic product exceeded $4,600 had a negative rate of growing stock change.”

That conclusion alone challenges an important claim previously made by the Green Left. It is not the wealthy nations that are losing forest stock but poor nations. This has always been obvious to me. I’ve lived in the third world and seen what is required to survive. Poor people deforest the areas near them because they must. They need fuel to heat their homes and cook their food. And the only fuel they can afford is the “free” timber that grows around them. In wealthy nations various factors reverse this process. New technologies in agriculture reduce the amount of land needed to produce food, economic development encourages migration to urban areas reducing human impact on rural forests, increased wealth encourages conversion to energy sources that are cleaner and more efficient.

Now the “skeptics” on environmental issues have long noted that forest levels were increasing in countries with market economies and property rights. We argued that this was no coincidence. This paper backs that up: “During the past two centuries, Europe has experienced forest transitions. Since 19th century transitions in the U.S., the forests of industrial and urbanized Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois have expanded by more than half.”

Equally as important is that these nations are seeing forest areas expand even as the population is expanding. For instance, in France, "forest area expanded by one-third from 1830 to 1960" while the French population grew from 32 million to 42 million. "Then, although total population burgeoned to 61 million from 1960 to 2005, forest area expanded by more than one-quarter."

Often we find forests being defined only in terms of area. But when it comes to environmental impact, particularly in regards to acting as a sink for carbon, the total biomass is important. You may find that in some nations the amount of area covered by forests haven't increased by very much in recent years, such as in Europe and the US, but the density of the biomass has increased significantly. For instance: "Although the German forest area nearly doubled after the Middle Ages, it scarcely increased between 1988 and 2002. On the other hand, German growing stock increased rapidly..." So improving density of forests is an important factor to keep in mind.

All in all the report finds many reasons for optimism. They find that "forest transitions of the kind experience in Europe and the U.S.... are now spreading to some other parts of the world" and "Without depopulation or impoverishment, increasing numbers of countries are now experiencing transitions in forest area and density."

You can download a pdf of the paper yourself here.