Today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a new report on how global warming is affecting our planet.
This report undoubtedly will generate headlines about rising oceans that swallow coastal areas; mass extinctions of plants and animals; epidemics of exotic diseases; increasing conflicts over dwindling resources the IPCC predicts all as possible in the next 20 to 70 years.
But will we hear about the reports assurance that there still is time to lessen the overall impact of climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions?
Our Survival Depends On It
Horrific gloom and doom captures imaginations. It also can leave people feeling helpless and hopeless. What a nervous public needs to know is that a collective effort among governments, corporations, and individuals in their homes and work places can minimize the effects of climate change.
A first step is to recognize this fundamental truth: All people and all societies depend on the Earths natural bounty for survival. Whether you call it biodiversity or creation, our planets sum of life gives us the fresh water, clean air, food, medicines, productive soils, pollinators, and other sustenance we need.
Nature provides these benefits for free, and replicating them is impossible or too expensive for realistic consideration. Over-consumption, pollution, and other factors already have harmed nature, and now the IPCC report will confirm that climate change is further altering or destroying the life-nurturing systems of the planet.
Climate change shifts temperatures and rainfall patterns, which causes changes in vegetation. Those changes in vegetation mean changes in our crops, our wildlife, our forests in the entire web of life on Earth.
Deforestation Is a Major Source of Carbon Emissions
A previous IPCC report issued in February examined the causes of climate change and declared human industry to be mostly responsible because of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases spewed out by factories, power plants, airplanes, trucks, cars, and other sources.
What few people realize is that burning or clearing tropical forests also is a major source of atmospheric carbon 20 percent* of the total, which is second only to the power generation sector. In fact, the destruction of tropical forests contributes twice as much carbon as all of the worlds cars and trucks.
Tropical forests are some of the richest habitats for life on Earth. Scientists estimate they contain 50 percent of all terrestrial life forms, most of which have not been studied and could hold genetic lessons for curing disease, producing foods, and otherwise benefiting our descendants.
These forests and their soils are among the Earth's largest repositories of carbon, making them crucial to climate regulation for the entire planet. So when a tropical forest is destroyed, we have lost unique life on Earth and contributed to climate change.
Rainforest-Rich Countries Need Economic Incentives
Avoiding tropical deforestation can provide immediate results in a global effort to reduce emissions. To make it happen, rainforest-rich nations such as Brazil, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, and others must have incentives to invest in their irreplaceable natural assets as both an economic priority and a global contribution to combating climate change.
One such incentive is the burgeoning carbon offset market, with forests gaining economic value for their ability to store carbon. However, the focus must be on both protecting standing forests and replanting barren areas to create additional carbon sinks.
Such thinking is part of a broader acknowledgement of the link between energy, climate, and nature, and the need to find solutions that dont sacrifice one for another. Large dams, biofuels, and poorly implemented carbon sequestration projects all can negatively affect forests and biodiversity. For example, the European Unions targets for greater reliance on biofuels threaten to accelerate tropical forest destruction from expanded sugarcane production in Brazil and palm oil production in Indonesia.
Energy Efficiency Will Lead to Savings
Instead, major emitting nations such as the United States should tap the biggest, cheapest, cleanest, and safest energy source on the planet energy efficiency.
A move to new ultra-efficient technologies such as appliances, lights, and cars that use 75 percent less energy and buildings that use 67 percent less energy would mean sufficient energy savings to cover at least half of the anticipated global energy demand in coming decades while using fewer resources, emitting dramatically less greenhouse gases, and lowering overall energy costs by literally trillions of dollars.
In China, which is soon to become the worlds biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, switching to decentralized power supplies such as home and office energy systems instead of continuing to build big coal-fired plants could halve carbon emissions while reducing energy use and saving $400 billion in consumer and construction costs by 2021.
Bold Leadership Required
Implementing solutions will require bold leadership. Already, corporations such as Wal-Mart, Nestles, Bank of America, GE, and Starbucks understand that their profits, the well-being of their supply chains, and the happiness of their consumers and employees are linked to sustainability. Religious voices from the Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim communities are rising against environmental destruction, regardless of personal creation beliefs. And our young people, the heirs to the planet, want a healthy environment for their lives and their children.
We can overcome the climate threat with a better understanding of what we face and what we must do to confront it. We have the resources both the natural assets and the technological expertise. All we need is the collective will.
*CI regularly reassesses our assumptions and conclusions to ensure they are consistent with the most current and reliable data sources available so that we are delivering accurate and up-to-date information. Accordingly, in December 2009, we updated our estimates related to global greenhouse gas emissions to reflect the best and most current science. We now estimate that 16% of greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation and logging.
See our deforestation, logging and GHG emissions factsheet (PDF - 2.7KB) for details and data sources.