Monday, December 17, 2007

How Much is a Tree Worth?

As an ecologist I never thought I'd be in such high demand!
Today while perusing my blogs I found this short piece on Costa Rica and their new program to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by the year 2021. An ambitious plan for a country that has lost more than a dozen amphibians due to habitat loss.
Costa Rica is a land known for its natural beauty, rainforests, and 5% of the world's species. Ecotourism is one of the leading industries in this tiny country, but one must not forget that the main economic force guiding this country is agriculture.
According to the article in Treehugger, "Just days ago, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias planted the 5 millionth tree of the year near his office in the capital San Jose...By the end of 2007, Costa Rica will have planted nearly 6.5 million trees, which should absorb 111,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year."
While this may be a wonderful idea, one must ask: What kind of trees are they planting, and how could they possibly take place of all the trees felled each year to make way for soybeans and other crops?
"Costa Rica is facing a wood shortage and must now import wood from other countries to meet domestic demand. And currently, there are no incentives for allowing abandoned agricultural land to regrow naturally into forest, so farmers are either shifting their agricultural land use to or planting native or exotic tree species for reforestation incentives," according to rainforest advocates at
And just how much carbon can a new tree absorb in comparison to a mature forest? The EPA, who I trust as the right arm of the Bush administration (yes there is some sarcasm here), claims, "
Carbon sequestration rates vary by tree species, soil type, regional climate, topography and management practice. In the U.S., fairly well-established values for carbon sequestration rates are available for most tree species. Soil carbon sequestration rates vary by soil type and cropping practice and are less well documented but information and research in this area is growing rapidly. Pine plantations in the Southeast (US) can accumulate almost 100 metric tons of carbon per acre after 90 years, (Do we have 90 more years?) or roughly one metric ton of carbon per acre per year," and they go as far as to say that carbon sequestration capabilities are reduced as a forest matures, as if to say plantations are better than natural forests. Costa Rica and the US aren't the only countries with faulty logic.

Officials from the Indonesian ministry of agriculture and the palm oil industry have been touting that palm plantations sequester more carbon than native rainforests.
Not so, according to Mongabay.
" As is the case with any plant, oil palm trees do sequester carbon sequester carbon as they grow -- carbon is a basic building block of plant tissue. Nevertheless, the process of clearing forest in order to establish a plantation releases more carbon than will be sequestered by the growing oil palms. So while a new oil palm plantation may grow faster -- and sequester carbon at a higher annual rate -- than a naturally regenerating forest, in the end the oil plantation will still store less carbon (50-90 percent less over 20 years) than the original forest cover."

Not to mention that fact that these trees planted will not match the loss of habitat due to clear cutting of the rainforests.
Nice try, Costa Rica, but you still have a long way to go, including fair analysis of the full range of ecosystem services an intact forest provides- from clean air and water, to biodiversity and products from the forest. How much is a tree really worth?

For the abbreviated article on Costa Rica in TreeHugger

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