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Peru’s first-ever high-resolution carbon map could help the world breathe easier

Peru’s first-ever high-resolution carbon map could help the world breathe easier

Posted by Juan Gavasa on July 31, 2014

To put an accurate price on carbon, you need to know how much you have and where it’s located, researchers say

Stanford University scientists have produced the first-ever high-resolution carbon geography of Peru, a country whose tropical forests are among the world’s most vital in terms of mitigating the global impact of climate change.

Released today, the 69-page report to Peru’s Ministry of the Environment could become a tool itself to battle rising temperatures. It is complete with vivid 3-D maps that pinpoint with a high degree of certainty the carbon density of Peru’s vast and varied landscape, from its western deserts and savannas, to its lowland forests, to its soaring Andean peaks, to its lush eastern Amazon rainforests.

The maps also reveal in sharp detail what’s missing: large swaths of once carbon-laden jungles now stripped bare by the extraction industry. Many of Peru’s gold, copper and silver mines operate legally; many of them do not. Environmental devastation is often the result.

The report represents two years of intensive aerial surveying by Greg Asner, a global ecologist with the Carnegie Institute for Science at Stanford University, and his team that operates the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO).

The CAO is a twin-engine turboprop Dornier 228 filled with more than $10 million in the latest short-wave and infrared sensors. Those tools can scan as much as 100,000 hectares (240,000 acres) a day at a density of just one hectare (2.4 acres). At that level of precision, the data reveal not only the height of the trees below, but also the individual leaves on each tree as well as the chemical activity in all those leaves.

Asner’s team sampled 16 million acres of ecosystems within Peru’s 320-million total acreage. Those samples were scaled up to a country-wide map using field plots and existing satellite imagery. Colors in the national map indicate how much carbon is stored above ground. The scale goes from blue — zero carbon — to dark red in the highest areas.

The report found, for example, that 53 percent of all Peruvian carbon is stored in one large Amazonian region — Loreto, followed by Ucayali and Madre de Dios (26 percent combined). Asner’s report emphasizes its underlying motivation and connection to climate-change mitigation: if global markets are going to value carbon at a competitive rate as an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, countries like Peru will need to know with great certainty how much carbon their forests contain when it comes to negotiating prices for carbon offsets.

“Peru’s minister of the environment can make very good use of this information,” says Enrique Ortiz, one of Peru’s leading conservationists and a senior program officer with the Blue Moon Fund in Washington, D.C., which supports global environmental projects. “It is a good proxy for creating mechanisms to reward good action, like which areas need to be protected and how to manage carbon trade. It also shows us where illegal mining is taking place, and that’s important, too.”

“These maps suddenly place Peru at the very forefront of the challenge to combat climate change,” says Asner, whose 2013 TED talk on his aerial research has 522,000 views. “It’s a sea change in capabilities. It will enable the country to use its carbon stock as a tool for engaging the international community to slow the rate of deforestation and forest degradation through conservation.”

The importance of Peru

When it comes to the global environment, it is difficult to overstate Peru’s importance. Its Amazon jungles are deemed among the most biodiverse on earth in terms  of tree, plant, animal and bird species. It also has the world’s fourth-largest store of tropical forests, behind only neighboring Brazil, the Congo and Indonesia. Critically, tropical forests soak up and store carbon emissions from industrialized countries. In doing so, they are an irreplaceable line of defense in slowing the rate of rising temperatures due to global warming.

The Carnegie report also comes at a critical time for Peru. While still largely poor, Peru’s economy is the fastest-growing in Latin America in part because of the prevalence of mining for minerals and drilling for fossil fuels. Those industries, which flourish as trees fall, helped put Peru at the top of another list — a leader among Amazonian countries in deforestation rates. The country lost some 400,000 acres in 2012.

To keep its economic growth rolling, the Peruvian Congress stunned environmentalists by passing a law on July 11 that reduces the authority of its Ministry of the Environment. The new laws could make it easier for mining and drilling activities to increase in forested lands, and make it more difficult to add additional protected land to Peru’s large inventory.

“Despite making good steps in regards to both economic growth and environmental protections over the last 20 years, these new laws show a lack of consistency and add doubt regarding the direction we are going,” says Pedro Solano, director of the influential Peruvian Society for Environmental Law in Lima. “Our environmental policy is still strong, but now politics will dictate more decisions.”

All this comes as Lima is preparing to host in December the 20th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The COP culminates in Paris in 2016 when the group will seek binding international agreements akin to the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997.

In Lima, policy makers at the COP will negotiate amid the pressure of another looming deadline — the scientific community’s consensus view that widespread efforts to reduce carbon emissions must be implemented in the next 10 years to limit predicted global temperature increases to around 3 degrees F. If not, far worse droughts, hurricanes and sea-level rises than we’re already experiencing are anticipated in the next 50 to 75 years..

In such a context, the Peruvian carbon maps created by Asner and his team  take on a heightened importance. He says the maps can help place a competitive value on carbon, which he believes is the best, and possibly only, hope to keep large tracts of tropical forests intact. “I’m going to the COP as a delegate and I’m going to give these maps to everyone I can,” Asner says. “The negotiators need to see the truth about what they have to lose and what they have to gain.”

Tropical forests: stand or fall?

As I wrote for National Geographic NewsWatch, one of the cruel ironies of climate change is that countries that ring the equator — most of them poor and eager to develop — possess a valuable asset in fighting rising temperatures that can they only monetize if they destroy it: their tropical forests.

These lush, dense woodlands are incomparably important to our lives on earth. They pull greenhouse gases from the air and store them, thus slowing the rate of global warming. They play a powerful role in the water cycle, thus creating clouds that make weather around the world. They harbor and sustain the majority of the earth’s biodiversity, thus providing shelter and habitats to countless species of wildlife and plantlife. And they provide these vital ecological services to all of us on the planet for free.

But these forests routinely sit atop lucrative troves of fossil fuels or minerals. Or they cover land that when cleared can be used for cattle ranching and palm-oil farming. Often, the governments in these countries, staring at high poverty and unemployment rates, chose revenue over conservation.

When that happens, a double whammy occurs. What was once a carbon sponge becomes a sieve. When trees fall, they release their carbon. Global deforestation contributes an estimated 17 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, remarkably on par with the combined fuel burned in cars, trucks, trains and airplanes, according to the EPA.

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