What coffee and airplanes could mean for forests

© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read

When a forest is lost anywhere, people feel it everywhere — even though they might not realize it until it’s too late.

It’s probably good news, then, that in recent weeks, forests have been linked to coffee, groundwater supplies and the airline industry — topics that tend to elicit more concern from policymakers and the public. If these issues can help bring more attention to forests, it might not be too late to save them.

The stories:

1. Could coffee cravings, climate change be forests’ downfall?

Coffee is produced in more than 70 countries on five continents — but the coffee industry will need to produce between 4 million and 14 million additional tons of coffee per year by 2050 to meet growing demand. Meanwhile, climate change is affecting growing conditions and limiting growing regions, influencing how much coffee production can expand to meet demand. A new paper examines how climate change will affect where coffee is grown — and how it could trigger a new round of deforestation if coffee producers are unable to increase productivity on existing coffee farms.

The takeaway

Given the needs of the two major cultivated species of coffee bean, such as elevation, temperature and shadiness, only certain areas are suitable for growing coffee — and they happen to be covered in forests: “Globally, about 80% of suitable Robusta landscapes are covered by natural forest, while about 56% of Arabica landscapes are forested,” the paper’s authors write.

Yet cutting down those trees to grow the coffee will contribute to the climate change that is making it more difficult to grow coffee in the first place. To address this, Conservation International (CI) recently launched the Sustainable Coffee Challenge in a bid to make coffee the first completely sustainable global agricultural product. Figuring out how to grow more coffee without destroying the forests is one piece of the puzzle.

ci_37811026View of oil palm plantations and forest from plane, Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a participating country in the REDD+ initiative to combat deforestation and forest degradation. (© Will Turner)

2. Can trees help make the airline industry more climate-friendly?

Forests can play a crucial role in the aviation industry, according to a joint paper released in April by CI and other NGOs. The industry is working to reduce its contribution to climate change through a set of goals set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — and it’s considering enlisting forests to help meet these goals, which include capping international aviation emissions at 2020 levels and delivering carbon neutral growth from them on.

The takeaway

That’s where REDD+ — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation — comes in. An initiative that uses financial incentives to curb carbon emissions caused by forest loss, REDD+ could help the aviation industry to help meet its emissions goals. As Peter Seligmann, CI’s CEO put it:

“A commitment by ICAO and the aviation industry to offset aviation carbon emissions through the protection of forests would underscore the remarkable impact of the Paris Agreement. Through this measure, the aviation sector can lead the world in financing the protection of tropical forests, which together provide 30% or more of the solution to climate change while simultaneously providing benefits to local communities.”

The ICAO intends to make a decision at the end of its next assembly meeting in October 2016 on whether to include REDD+ credits in its efforts to reduce its impact on climate change.

3. Myth busted: Planting trees reduces available groundwater

For all their benefits to the Earth and humanity, forests suck up a lot of water that could be put to better use irrigating crops or supporting people — or so we thought. The prevailing view that trees shouldn’t be planted in arid regions because they would use too much water has been challenged by a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The takeaway

Scientists in Burkina Faso discovered that the presence of a certain number of trees actually maximizes the amount of groundwater recharge, the process where water moves downward and enters groundwater sources such as aquifers.

Ulrik Ilstedt, the study’s lead authors, explains:

“Without trees, these sensitive tropical soils lose their large pores, which are responsible for leading water down into the ground quickly. Without these pores, the water flows away on the soil surface or is trapped in the compact soil surface and evaporates.”

Since 70% of the semi-arid tropics have soils similar to those in the study, this finding could give a boost to tree-planting in areas with water scarcity. Though there are caveats to the research — including the fact that the links between trees and groundwater can vary widely depending on specific location — this study illustrates that in arid areas with little tree cover, planting trees could not only provide access to water but also provide the many other benefits of forests, including food security.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer at Conservation International.

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Cover image: Wife and husband farmers Hasbulah Lubis, 44, and Rofiqoh Nasution, 35, harvest Arabica coffee fruit on recently deforested land in Pagar Gunung village near Batang Gadis National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

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