Rain forests as carbon sinks

Our planet has some very complicated plumbing, and we don’t know where it’s all buried. Using the old “spaceship Earth” analogy, we’re riding as passengers in a giant space vessel and we don’t understand how most of the life support systems work. Our planetary climate is changing because we’ve fiddled around too much with the food synthesizers, and without realizing it we’ve screwed up the shipwide temperature-control and water distribution systems. Studying climate is a difficult and time-consuming area of research; it’s not caused by one thing, it’s caused by all the other spaceship life-support systems operating together: heat regulation, oxygen production, air filtration, lighting, ventilation, sewage processing, and cargo bay accessibility. To understand the whole thing you’ve first got to figure out the parts and how everything is connected.

A perfect example of this trouble is the carbon cycle. Human activities have modified the amount of carbon moving through the planetary plumbing, by opening up all the geologic fossil carbon stockpiles at once and burning them to carbon dioxide gas. We’re flushing the plumbing with a fresh jolt of carbon, but we don’t really know all the details about where it’s going to go or whether it will flood the system and cause a climate disaster. The only way to figure that out is to root around a bit… i.e., conduct thousands of different research projects around the world, for decades, and try to study all that information until a clear blueprint of the climate system emerges. It’s not easy, and it’s not quick.

I bring this up because of a new study featured recently in Science News, showing that tropical rain forests are capable of storing more carbon than previous studies had anticipated. That’s good news, because it suggests that time and effort spent trying to preserve and replant tropical rain forests might be quantitatively justifiable in terms of controlling atmospheric CO2. Earth’s carbon plumbing is backed up and under pressure, and we need to release some of that built-up carbon pressure by bleeding it off into carbon sinks.

Forests are good carbon sinks, because they can regrow fairly quickly when protected, and they hold down great tonnages of carbon as wood, roots and soil. Once in place, forests act like gigantic giant carbon-storage tank farms, with endemic biological diversity serving as the farm auto-repair machinery. One key to keeping the climate pipes from bursting – preventing CO2 from building up enough in the atmosphere to cause a dramatic climate shift – is to establish an accurate tally of where we can most effectively re-direct carbon flow.

With an accurate carbon map for Earth, it would be possible to formulate sound international policy dealing with climate change. One proposal to deal with carbon emissions in the US is to establish a federal carbon cap/trade program, which would quantify carbon dioxide release and storage as a commodity, to be traded on an open market. If we could accurately understand how much carbon storage is realized from re-planting an area of tropical rain forest, and approximately how many years it would take for that tropical carbon storage to mature, we could more easily integrate reforestation projects into a global carbon stock market. It might be justifiable scientifically, for example, to establish “carbon bonds” that support reforestation projects in a country, and pay dividends in amortized carbon storage credits, which would have a floating market value. There’s no reason conservatives shouldn’t get behind this, because it would open up whole new realms of entrepreneurial creativity and cash flow. Hopefully they won’t take too many more years to figure that out.

I wonder if Brazil will put supermodels on their national Carbon Savings Bond certificates?

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~ by Planetologist on February 27, 2009.

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