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Saving rainforest is hugely cost effective to mitigate climate change: prevent 1000 tons of CO2 emissions for cost of coffee

An acre of rainforest contains about 200 tons of carbon. If deforested, at least half of that carbon is converted to CO2, say 100 tons of C which translates to 366 tons of CO2. Direct conservation can save an acre of Amazon rainforest for about $100 to $200 per acre via land purchase and as little at about $1 per acre via other methods, including titling of indigenous lands and formation of government preserves and parks. At $1 per acre of rainforest saved from deforestation, 1000 tons of CO2 emissions thus can be avoided for the cost of a cup of coffee.

Of course, to combat climate change effectively, we must reduce or eliminate use of fossil fuels. But saving rainforest is the low-hanging fruit in the effort to combat climate change, given the cost-effectiveness described above. If you compare the cost effectiveness of putting solar panels on the roof of your home, or buying an electric car (rather than a lower priced gas car), saving rainforest for $1 per acre is about 1000x more cost effective than putting solar panels on your home or buying an electric car. Each of these options (solar panels, or electric car) cost over $10,000 (versus the alternatives) but do less to reduce CO2 emissions than saving a single acre of rainforest, perhaps 4 tons of avoided CO2 emissions for each of 20 years.

Here is an example of a project that costs only 50 cents to save an acre of rainforest, and is already underway (and in which anyone can participate):
http://www.rainforesttrust.org/acres-for-50cents/

Full disclosure: I am a board member of the Rainforest Trust and a major donor to this charity. I also contribute substantial amounts to other charities focused on saving rainforest. I have funded projects in the last year that will save over 1,000,000 acres of rainforest.

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    • Feb 5 2014: Don, Thank you very much! I did enjoyed that talk, and learned much. The techniques of Allan Savory also would seem to have huge potential benefit and very limited cost. This has me thinking of applications near the Amazon (in grasslands, including areas already deforested) . . .
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        Feb 5 2014: You welcome. :)
        They are better the limited cost, they have self-sustaining profit.

        And to anyone who think profit is evil, I roll my eyes and say that they just don’t know how to create profit correctly.
        • Feb 5 2014: Don, to your profit point, my hope is that for-profit activity can take over from philanthropy at saving rainforest. One way to do this is to save rainforest to create carbon offset credits for sale to corporations. Some corporations are already buying such credits, and others, including governments, have interest. In 2015, California's carbon trading market will permit rainforest credits to trade, and, in 2020, Europe's will too.

          An acre of rainforest is worth about $10,000 when valued for its carbon credits based on current market prices on the California and European carbon trading markets. This is further illustration of the compelling economics of rainforest preservation as a mechanism for avoiding CO2 emissions, given that these acres sell for about $100 each for exploitative purposes and can be protected for much less (if already owned by a government or indigenous groups, which is true of most remaining rainforest).

          In my view, the gold standard in the arena of for-profit rainforest preservation for carbon offset credit is Permian Global (see http://permianglobal.com/en ). It is run by folks of very high integrity that are financial experts (having run very successful money management firms in the past) but also life-long devoted conservationists. Permian already has multiple projects in process, and is active around the globe.
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        Feb 5 2014: Brett, Personally I’m not a fan of doing stuff through taxes, I know they can work but they seem to using the whip instead of sugar to drive motivation.
        And I see carbon credits as just a reduction in punishment on manufactures & political money grab also a new tulip currency to be exploited. (plus credits can never grow to be self-founding)

        I have seen kick-start programs do a lot of good, and to me it seems helping people native to the rainforest start a holistic management ranch with a kick start would work. Maybe try doing both and see how it goes.

        Although I personally don’t have the means to do philanthropy, I have to recommend Ernesto Sirolli TED talk to those who can.
        http://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen.html
        as Darrell put it wow! it is a thought changer.

        Keep up the good work, we need as many Good-doers as possible.
        • Feb 5 2014: While profit is not evil, the hoarding of money does do significant damage to an economy.

          We have tried appealing to the compassion and logic of people with high incomes, trying to get them to spend (including investment in business) or donate their excess money. They insist on hoarding or loaning it out in quantities that are killing the middle class.

          So, other than tax, how are you going to convince people with very high incomes to spend or donate the vast majority of the income, keeping very little as money or near-money.
    • Feb 5 2014: wow!
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    Feb 6 2014: I think any inniative to get down our carbon emissions is a good idea - and planting rainforests has the benefit of increased levels of biodiversity and protection of endangered species - but I wonder whether actually reducing our footprints in the first place would also be as effective?
    • Feb 6 2014: Thanks for your positive thoughts on rainforest preservation and replanting!

      In terms of carbon footprint reduction, I suggest that we all do what we can as fast as we can. As the effects of global warming become more evident, the pressure will build for more action, and much more intensive efforts should result. While the issue of climate change has been known for about 50 years, and widely known for about 10 years, the grass roots efforts are just now reaching very significant levels. PowerShift, 350.org and Citizens Climate Lobby are evidence of this. I am particularly impressed by the efforts of the Citizens Cliimate Lobby ( http://citizensclimatelobby.org ) via which ordinary folks all over the country are driving an effort to educate politicians and the public. Also, while still a bit small scale, solutions like solar power, hybrid and electric autos, e-bikes, and LED lighting, are growing in usage. We must be optimistic and work hard and fast to address climate change, given the threat to humanity and all other life on our planet.
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        Feb 7 2014: There have been huge numbers of initiatives and as you say, some are particularly effect, especially LEDs and e-bikes (or Borris Bikes as we call them in London). I think greener citites and better urban planning - not just in terms of CO2 emmission reduction, but also for urban heat island, pollution, etc - would be a great next step.

        With regards to foot prints though, I found an article that discusses the issue well and argues for life to be like ‘the Palaeolithic plus good dental care’ - it's an interesting angle http://iainews.iai.tv/articles/utopia-crunching-the-numbers-auid-307 The author argues that we should see steps towards a greener future as scafolding - build it up bit by bit for the next generation but if you jump for heaven immediately, you'll come crashing down.
  • Feb 5 2014: I'm not sure its all that effective, actually.
    Sure every plant in the rainforest eats up carbon when it grows, but when it eventually dies and decomposes, or is simply eaten by an animal, all that carbon is just released right back.

    Encouraging plant growth may be an effective strategy if you're trying to increase oxygen levels in the atmosphere, but for getting rid of carbon...
    Either way, encouraging spikes in algae growth by iron seeding of the oceans is more cost effective then preserving rainforests--it might be just as ineffective, but it'll be cheaper.

    Now, I have my doubts on just how man-made global warming actually is, but even assuming I'm wrong, fossil fuels are so prevalent and so vital to our quality of life, it may well be better to make preparations for the inevitable rather then fighting a loosing battle.
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      Feb 5 2014: “but when it eventually dies and decomposes, or is simply eaten by an animal, all that carbon is just released right back.”

      Wrong! Unless it is burned it gets trapped into the soil.

      P.S. i should add:
      I’m sure man-made global warming an evil hoax. But reducing waste and saving the rain-forest is a good thing for many many other reasons.
      • Feb 5 2014: I detect a hint of fanaticism, so everything I'm writing is probably in vain, but I'll try anyway.

        There is no reason for the carbon to get trapped inside the soil, instead its released into the atmosphere as the organism decomposes, or the animal that ate it breaths. Why on earth would the soil absorb it anyway?

        As for saving rainforests for other reasons, knock yourself out. It won't help much with global warming though--you know, what we're discussing at the moment.
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          Feb 5 2014: Check out the TED talk by Allen Savory that I posted above.

          FYI: I’m no green pace tree huger by any measure, I do green stuff but not to be green. For example I planted several butterfly bushes, and not to save butterflies and humming birds but instead because I enjoy watching them and humming birds eat mosquitoes.
          If they also help save the bees, that is all good for I like the taste of Honey. ;)

          Not enough people look for the Win/Wins in life.
    • Feb 5 2014: The key to rain forests is that they store massive amounts of carbon in tree trunks. At steady-state, a fully mature rainforest does not absorb net carbon unless it is peat forming (which many are). A peat forming rainforest stores carbon in the form of tree trunks that do not decompose because they sink beneath a water barrier (i.e., in a marshy rainforest). Peat storing rain forests can store up to 10x the carbon found above ground.

      The 366 ton number is the rough amount of CO2 released when an acre of rainforest is cut or burned. Again, other than peatlands, a mature, steady state rainforest is merely a massive store of carbon, not a continual sink. But cutting it releases the carbon, and the typical replacement uses (agriculture and pasture land) store very little carbon as they lack the massive tree trunks were the vast majority of carbon is stored.

      Preserving rainforest is hugely cost effective and low risk because rainforest has very low value for exploitation and it involves a natural process. Replanting already destroyed rainforest costs about $4,000 per acre, far more than the cost of the land (perhaps $100 per acre) and vastly more than than the cost of protecting land already owned by a government (which includes most of the remaining rainforest).

      Nadav, If you have an active algae growth project (like the active project above for rainforest), please share the details with us so that we can see its cost effectiveness. Of course, these methods can both be pursued. Multiple methods must be pursued, given the magnitude of the CO2 levels.

      As to your doubts, I think detailed study of the issue (with an open mind) would put those to rest.

      Fossil fuels will only last a few hundred more years. As such, we need to find replacements. We have many cost effective replacements now, including nuclear & solar power. The cost of switching to these is tiny compared to the cost of mitigating against the effects of climate change.
      • Feb 5 2014: Going by the numbers posted by Darrel Shimel bellow, the overall effect of rainforest carbon storage isn't all that great, at a million acres per 12 days of emissions.
        I'm assuming peat forming rate is significantly lower. Seems like a drop in the ocean. You may have other reasons to save the rainforests, but that's not the issue we're discussing at the moment.

        As for the algae growing, just something I heard proposed. I'm not at all sure its practical--its dirt cheap (a small ship and a couple of tons of powdered iron and you're good to go) and absorbs a lot of carbon fast, but it all decomposes just as quickly. It may also have adverse effects on the ocean's ecosystems.
        The only practical application I ever heard of done with this technology is someone making a killing off fishing rights to iron seeded waters.

        As for fossil fuels lasting hundreds of years, that's actually plenty. With the exception of oil which is expected to start running low in a few decades, fossil fuels will last for a long time to come. Let the people living two hundred years from now figure out how to solve 2200's problems--I'm sure the political and technological landscape will be so fundumentally different I can't comprehend it today anymore then Julius Ceaser could comprehend quantum physics.

        As for mitigating, or just learning to live with climate change, I don't see any other real option. Coal is currently the fastest growing section of the energy market--the public doesn't trust nuclear, and renewables cost a fortune and stop working on overcast and windless days.
        All the different countries are well aware that even if they screw up their own economy by going green, there is no guarantee the other countries will do the same, which means carbon gets emitted on mass anyway, and your economy suffers for nothing.
        • Feb 5 2014: Nadav, note that Darrel's numbers are based solely on my personal charitable contributions to save 1,000,000 acres rainforest in the last year, and note that my contributions were not colossally massive, as all projects were no more than 50 cents per acre (the lowest was 15 cents per acre). If all folks in the world on my not very extraordinary financial means were to join me, deforestation could be virtually stopped and even reversed. As estimates of the contribution of deforestation to greenhouses emissions vary from 8% to much higher numbers, this would be quite significant as an element in mitigating rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere (and in the ocean, where it creates increasing acidic conditions). Of course, we also need to convert to solar and get off of fossil fuels, but saving rainforest is very low-hanging fruit in the overall effort.
      • Feb 5 2014: I'm still not sure that saving the rainforests will do much for global warming, but there are other reasons they're worth saving, so knock yourself out.

        Another potential way to help out the rainforests is by replacing wood in construction, industry and consumer products with plastics and other composites. If there's less money to be made chopping trees down, there's less pressure from those with interests in logging.
        Stop using wood the same way we stopped using fur, and for many of the same reasons--its unsustainable and bad for the environment. The synthetic stuff certainly preforms as well, and at least in my country, its cheaper (of course, we don't have much of a logging industry, so I'm not sure the "cheaper" applies to everyone).
  • Feb 5 2014: 366 tons per acre? I believe global emission of CO2 are about 11 billion metric tones a year. 1 million acres of rainforest? So, about 12 days of our emissions?
    • Feb 5 2014: Yes, those number are correct. Of course, please note that the million acres of rainforest that I am saving would not have all been otherwise cut this year, but more likely over 10 to 20 years. Saving rainforest is a hugely cost effective method of avoiding CO2 emissions. If we could all pitch in, nearly all of the remaining rainforest on earth could be saved. Rainforest once covered almost 4 billion acres of the planet, but now only about 2 billion acres remain. And if deforestation can be stopped, reforestation might then be possible, which not only stops CO2 emissions from rainforest destruction, but would be a huge carbon sink as trees regrow.