Why Rainforest Protection is the Secret Weapon Against Climate Change

dense green rainforest with fog

In the Paris Agreement of 2015, United Nations (UN) member states set an international target to limit the average global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. That might not sound like much, but those couple of degrees can upset the planet’s delicate balance.

For instance, an increase of 2°C in the world’s temperature could result in complete eradication of the planet’s coral reefs. In addition to the reefs’ magnificent, other-worldly beauty, they’re home to millions of species.

Global warming is already allowing disease-causing organisms to spread outside the tropics into new regions, bringing diseases like dengue fever and Zika into previously unaffected areas. Due to climate change, mega-storms like Hurricane Harvey and crop-killing heat waves are becoming the norm.

With all these wide-ranging negative consequences of climate change, we must do what we can to stop it. But apart from worldwide government action, what can we do to put the brakes on the runaway train of climate change?

What is climate change?

First of all, let’s get straight on what climate change is.

There are natural fluctuations in the climate, but the Earth's temperature has been getting worrisomely warmer since the 1980s. Heat is getting trapped in the atmosphere by increased greenhouse gases (GHGs) resulting from human activity. Notable GHGs include carbon dioxide--from burning fossil fuels, solid waste, and trees--and methane. Methane is emitted by livestock and during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil.

The average temperature on Earth is about 15°C, but it’s been much higher and lower in the past. Data confirms that the world is getting warmer.

climate change graph

It’s not just political rhetoric: the world really is getting warmer, and that causes a host of problems. Source

Best practices to combat climate change

There are lots of creative ideas to halt global warming, and we need to implement as many thoughtful ideas as we can. But we think protecting the rainforest is the most efficient global-warming-buster. Admittedly, we're biased, but let's examine why rainforest protection is a viable strategy for fighting climate change.

Rainforests sequester carbon

When people burn wood, they release one of the most damaging GHGs, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. However, growing and mature trees sequester—a fancy word for contain—all that carbon. Living, breathing rainforests are colossal carbon reservoirs.

Rainforests drive rainfall

Rainforests contribute to rainfall through the process of transpiration. You can think of transpiration as the way a plant breathes. Water moves through the plant, and it’s released into the air via leaves, stems, and flowers. Water is a byproduct of photosynthesis.

The water plants release contributes to humidity or moisture in the air. Since a rainforest has so many trees, the volume of water the trees release through transpiration contributes to rain-cloud formation, and hence rainfall. There’s a good reason this ecosystem is called the rainforest.

The world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, can drive rainfall over vast areas. In fact, the Amazon is estimated to be responsible for 70% of rainfall in southern Brazil.

When sunshine hits denuded land, it turns into heat. But when that sunlight hits an intact forest canopy, it affects clouds and rainfall. Clouds provide shade, and they also bounce sunshine back into space, thereby cooling down the planet.

Rainforests decrease local temperatures

Tropical forests increase humidity by transpiration and contributing to wind currents, so they have a localized cooling effect. Also, the forest canopy shields the area beneath it from the harsh rays of the sun.

After deforestation, local people immediately complain about an increase in the temperature. Not only have they lost the sun-filtering canopy, but they don’t benefit from transpiration and wind currents.

Deforestation: the flip side of the global warming equation

As we’ve already seen, functioning tropical forests foster cooler climates and gobble up carbon dioxide. But when those forests are cut down, they release their carbon into the atmosphere.

Current estimates are that deforestation is responsible for about 15% of global carbon emissions. That’s equivalent to the emissions impact of all the transportation on Earth.

So cutting down rainforest while simultaneously protecting some of it results in net neutral or negative effects. Explains Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman, “While restoration can play an integral role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, we must first halt the carbon emissions coming from deforestation.”

Stop rainforest destruction and protect it at the same time

Combating global warming is a war fought on many fronts. One of those fronts is renewable energy. That’s certainly worth pursuing, but we also need to take actions that will yield immediate results, including halting deforestation.

“Stopping rainforest destruction can immediately and cost-effectively buy us a crucially needed breathing space to transition away from the use of fossil fuels,” Salaman says.

Of course, we also need to preserve rainforests. As we’ve already seen, rainforests help cool their local areas. And because they’re so huge, they have worldwide effects as well.

Reclaiming rainforest land that’s been burned, logged, or turned into agricultural land can cost upwards of $2,000 per acre. A far more cost-effective alternative is keeping tropical forests that are still at least somewhat intact from further degradation.

Sustaining rainforests century after century requires species to work together to maintain equilibrium. For instance, plants need certain temperatures and precipitation levels to thrive, and those factors are regulated by the local flora.

Rainforest plants are also highly dependent on various types of organisms for dispersal and reproduction. The Brazil nut tree is the poster child for requiring complex ecological interactions to reproduce.

This towering tree, which produces some of the most valuable non-timber products in the Amazon, relies solely on agoutis—medium-sized rodents—to disperse its seeds. The agouti is the only animal with teeth strong enough to crack the grapefruit-sized pods. Also, Brazil nut trees need large native bees to pollinate their flowers.

Do your part to combat deforestation and climate change

Rainforests are a vital component of a strategy to stop global warming. Do your part to protect the rainforest with the purchase of an OMA Earth bracelet. Produced by indigenous artisans who diligently care for their homes, the bracelets fund the purchase of a rainforest acre, plant a tree, and provide fair wages for the artisans. Click here to purchase a bracelet!

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