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Levi Novey

Levi Novey

Posted: June 2, 2009 02:05 PM

The Amazon Rainforest is More Important than Electric Cars

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Someone should contact Neil Young and tell him to stop making albums about electric cars and start writing songs about the Amazon. While I write this in jest, the boringness of someone pulling your ear about the devastation of deforestation should still be as important as talking about topics such as the duel between San Francisco and Portland for electric car supremacy.

The facts are plain and simple. Deforestation accounts for 20%-25% of worldwide carbon emissions, whereas the global transportation sector currently accounts for the same amount if not less (15-20%). The Amazon Rainforest is one of the largest forests in the world, and arguably the most important. Nowhere else in the world is there more biodiversity among plants and animals. Did you know that approximately one in every 10 known species in the world lives in the Amazon? It also provides the world with 20% of its oxygen, and contains 20% of the world's freshwater. If that's not enough, 25% of all modern pharmaceutical drugs are derived from rainforest plants, and yet only about 1% have been studied, including those that might help fight cancer.

Since the Amazon Rainforest is so important, we must ask ourselves: "Why have we (or at least the media) become so bored of discussing the Amazon and deforestation?"

At the most basic level, perhaps it's because technological innovations that help reduce our environmental impact are more inspiring and interesting, and might make businesses money. Who doesn't like hearing about a 12 year old who has invented a new solar cell that might revolutionize the energy industry? Or about how a $26,000 Aptera electric car might end up getting 300 miles per gallon?

Deforestation, on the other hand, is depressing. We feel less powerful in our abilities to stop it. We can imagine ourselves driving electric cars in five years, or even visualize what wind turbines would look like in fields near to where we live. Getting a poor family in rural Peru to stop chopping down the Amazon as they make way for more coffee crops -- it seems like an impossible task to achieve given how many other factors are at play.

Then there's also the global climate change monster that's running buck wild and grabbing all of the headlines. No doubt deforestation is a component, but it's certainly less discussed than our polluting ways. In a great piece from Slate several weeks ago, a former biologist turned journalist summed it up:

Now, being green is all about greenhouse gases: Neighborhood moms are more apt to fret over food miles than felled forests; organic cattle farmers are more interested in offsetting the methane coming from cow burps than pondering squished tadpoles in hoof prints. Even scientists have grown bored with question of habitat loss, tweaking their grant proposals to emphasize the climate angle no matter how tenuous the connection. Saving the Amazon is so 1980s.

So why should we care just as much about the Amazon Rainforest and deforestation as electric cars at this point in time? For starters, there is currently a strong willingness among the governments of several South American countries to save their forests, and the U.S. can help them by establishing a cap and trade system that leads the way in rewarding their efforts to preserve standing forests with cash.

Take the country of Guyana as an example. While Americans undoubtedly know little about it, Guyana is one of the nine countries that contain areas of the Amazon within their borders. During the past few years, the president of the impoverished nation has offered almost the entirety of the country's forests up for protection, most recently to the United Kingdom. The simple goal is to get someone to pay for the long-term value of Guyana's standing forests in exchange for not having them used for other economic activities.

One idea as to how this would be achieved more universally would be for the world to enact an accord that would make the goal a reality. The idea has become known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). It will hopefully be part of whatever agreement follows the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Countries would be compensated for their efforts to reduce deforestation and would also receive regular money for maintaining pre-existing forested areas.

There are questions, of course, about how this money would be distributed equitably so that it really does improve quality of life for those people who might not have alternatives to tearing down forests like the Amazon for their livelihoods. We also don't know beyond generalizations how the money would be used to create jobs, or to help protect indigenous groups from losing their lands and way of life.

The good news is that approaches to international conservation that involve communities might prove more effective than the old U.S. model of slapping political, protective boundaries around land, where conservation measures have little chance of being effectively enforced. Participative approaches to conservation are becoming more common, and are now being applied and researched with rigor. In whichever case, something has to work better than the conservation systems in place now.

In addition to Guyana, Peru and Ecuador have also showed considerable interest in preserving their forests as part of international efforts to limit deforestation and decelerate climate change. Peru signed a free trade agreement with the U.S. last year, and as a pre-condition requested by the U.S., Peru needed to create a new Ministry of the Environment. So far the Environmental Minister is signaling great intentions toward deforestation: he is seeking international aid to help bring deforestation to a net rate of zero in 10 years. Japan recently loaned Peru $120 Million to help achieve this goal. The Environmental Minister also has created a plan for a 3,000 person "Environment Police" that would help stop illegal logging. The current force of 61 "is a joke," he says. Who wouldn't agree? Peru's Ministry of Agriculture planted 40 million trees in three months this year to help combat deforestation and climate change. In other words, in Peru a strong movement to save forests and the Amazon is gaining steam.

Peru's northern neighbor, Ecuador, recently became the first country in the world to grant nature legal rights via its Constitution. In a landmark move, citizens can now sue in court on behalf of nature. Ecuador's President has also asked for international aid to help keep a national park off limits from oil exploration and deforestation. Oil extraction plays such a big part in the impoverished country's income that an alternative is needed. Ecuador is open to the possibility of forest preservation being that alternative.

But the elephant in the room is most definitely Brazil. They possess 60% of the Amazon Rainforest within their borders, and despite showing some new interest have been largely absent in combating deforestation (so have most countries). Last year they proposed a new $23 billion conservation fund that would be managed by Brazilians with no strings attached from the countries who donate to the fund. A dispute with Peru also made headlines, after the first photos were released of a previously uncontacted tribe who was being displaced by illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Following these developments, Brazil made several intriguing and mysterious moves, such as doubling their military forces and plans for forts in the Amazon under the premise of protecting indigenous groups. They also introduced a plan to end net deforestation by 2015, but provided no new ideas for how to do it. The country's endangered species list tripled in size last year, and the rate of deforestation rose by an alarming 64%.

This context now brings us back to the U.S. effort to tackle deforestation as part of a larger climate change battle. There is a big opportunity coming up for Barack Obama to take a stand on deforestation and work with big players like Brazil. While without doubt Obama's push for alternative energy, biofuels, green jobs, and electric cars is exciting, there is a real danger that he will take his eyes off the larger ball. He could easily fall for the latest half-ass ploy being proposed by smarty-pants pundits like Thomas Friedman: a carbon tax. It would be a failure in my opinion to pass U.S. climate legislation that does not create a mechanism to allow for other countries that reduce their emissions and deforestation to reap profits from trading their carbon credits to American companies who go over the limit. In other words, an internal U.S. carbon tax would not address the need and desire for international system that would help deter and limit deforestation (at least to my knowledge).

Quality of life for people living in the Amazon Rainforest can most likely improve as a result of cap and trade. We must get these people onto an alternative path that is prosperous if the Amazon is to be protected from further destruction. Without cap and trade, something that could benefit every country in the world, it's challenging to imagine that happening in the near future.

To return to my original premise, I wholeheartedly believe in an electric car future. I support and participate regularly in the excitement building around it, as well as the growing enthusiasm for alternative energies like solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power. My goal is simply to help bring optimism and excitement back to the perhaps forgotten issue of deforestation in the Amazon, especially given the opportunities and unprecedented will power that now exist in South America to stop it.

Informed citizens need to take part in influencing the political climate change legislation debates that are heading to a climax in Washington. Cap and trade is important for saving forests and reducing pollution. A carbon tax would most likely just help to reduce pollution. The better choice is obvious, no matter what the opponents say. Spread the word.

 
 
 

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