Burning Issues – Summer 2019, Where Do We Stand?

By September 11, 2019News

We are at an extremely important point in the fight to protect our natural systems. 


August 2019 was a month in which we saw some encouraging international developments with regards to tree planting movements in a number of countries but also witnessed the utter devastation caused by the widespread burning of the Amazon Rainforest, Arctic regions and throughout Indonesia. In this post we will be taking a look at where we stand in terms of reforestation as an international civilisation and what we are up against.


So, to begin at home with the good news. In June we welcomed the government’s somewhat vague promise to plant more trees as part of the national Climate Action Plan. Last week were given some insight into the actual figures that the government plans to plant over the next 20 years. A spokesperson for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment informed the Irish Times that the government plans to plant 22 million trees per year up to 2040, amounting to a total of 440 million new trees nationally. Fantastic. Our job now is to hold them to this and make sure that it is actually acted on and not endlessly delayed or discarded without real action.


What we haven’t heard so much of as of yet is information on where these trees will be planted. On Wednesday last week, Leo Varadkar tweeted that the government are willing to make it “financially worthwhile” for landowners to plant a portion of their land. Of course, encouraging farmers and other large landowners in particular to set aside land for this will be a hugely important aspect of ensuring the success of this undertaking. 

Currently we understand that the species distribution will be 30% broadleaf and 70% coniferous but do not have specific details on whether plantations will consist of a single species for logging or be comprised of a mixture of species to provide resilience in the ecosystem and encourage biodiversity. This is an important issue as it will determine the level to which different creatures, including important pollinators, will be supported.


Separately in Ethiopia, on July 29th over 350 million trees were planted in a single day. Difficulties lie in confirming whether or not this figure is completely accurate, however this level of national ambition and action is certainly welcome news and a brilliant move in the right direction. 


Similarly in Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan continued the national “10 Billion Trees” initiative by asking the country to assist in planting 22 million trees on August 18 for “Plant for Pakistan” day. According to official UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) statistics, Pakistan lost a third of its forest cover in just 20 years between 1990 and 2010. Their figures estimate that just 2.2% of the land is now covered by forest. The same figures show that Ethiopia lost over 18% of their forestry cover in the same period.


The FAO has been involved in monitoring forestry globally since 1946 and is currently gearing up for the planned 2020 Global Forests Resources assessment (FRA). The purpose of the FRA is to better understand how forests are changing globally and in recent years the scope has evolved from focussing specifically on timber inventories to all aspects of sustainable forest management.


It is important to note that in both countries, years of sustained deforestation and increasing effects of climate change have led to widespread drought and desertification. This is clearly having an effect on the urgency and scale with which these projects are being implemented nationally. Efforts like this are going to have to become more frequent in order to have any chance of staying within 1.5’C warming of the atmosphere as asserted by the IPPC. However, we are still fighting against crippling levels of deforestation globally.


According to the WWF, we lose about 18.7 million acres of forest annually, equivalent to 27 football fields every minute. This has only been exacerbated by a summer of widespread and rampant wildfires.


Since June, the Arctic regions were affected by some of the most intense and persistent wildfires on record. Parts of Greenland, Russia, Canada and Alaska were devastated by abnormally long-lasting fires with the Guardian reporting that a cloud of smoke the size of the European Union being visible above Siberia where 6 million acres of forest have been destroyed. 


In Indonesia, the worst fires since 2015 have been raging since the beginning of August. Over 700 “hotspots” have been identified with several provinces declaring a state of emergency as a result. And this is not to say that 2015 levels were in any way normal or sustainable, the fires devastated vast tracts of tropical rainforest, habitat that is home to some of the world’s most endearing species such as the critically endangered Orangutan. Although the causes of the escalating number of fires are difficult to confirm, reports point to efforts to clear land for plantations of monoculture crops, in particular palm oil.


It is tough to remain positive in the face of this level of catastrophe, but it also accentuates the need for those who appreciate the severity of the issue to keep reinforcing and increasing efforts to protect our environment. 


Our TV monitors were also ablaze with images of the man-made fires in the Amazon basin. Brazilian Prime Minister, Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected last year, has severely weakened pre-existing forest protections against illegal logging, encouraging farmers to clear more land for agriculture. This has led to an 80% increase of fires than in the same period last year. The Amazonian dry period runs from June to December and so the amount of land that will eventually be burnt by the end of this period is expected to greatly exceed that of recent years. These are the largest fires since 2010 (which was a particularly dry year due to El Nino, allowing fires to spread much more rapidly). The fear is that Bolsonaro’s policies will lead to this amount of increased burning becoming the norm under his administration. In a time when we are desperately in need of reducing carbon emissions globally, ramping up deforestation in one of the largest carbon sinks in the world is the last thing we need.


When the G7 met in Biarritz they collectively offered $20 million in immediate aid to fight the fires. This was met with a certain level of hostility by Bolsonaro calling the move colonialist. The offer of $20 million (€18,102,200) which equates to just under $3 million each from 7 of the world’s largest industrialised nations, number which seems tokenistic at best and doesn’t represent very much intent other than gaining international headlines. 

The irony is that many companies operating within these developed countries’ economies (and by proxy the governments of those countries) have a lot to gain by the continuation of deforestation and intensification of industry in these areas. 


An article published in the Washington Post on August 27th notes that Brazil’s biggest meatpacker, JBS, control’s 35% of beef exports in Brazil and have been involved in a number of scandals, having been caught sourcing their beef from ranchers engaged in illegal deforestation. Yet, American investors own over $1 billion of JBS stock. 


A report titled “Blackrock’s Big Deforestation Problem” looks at financial data from 2014 to 2018 showing the global investment management firm to be among the top three shareholders in 25 of the planet’s largest publicly traded companies with “deforestation risk”.


It goes on to quote a BlackRock representative saying that they have the “fiduciary duty” to manage their clients’ assets in line with that client’s investment priorities. 

This means to say that investment companies are bound by law to serve the best interests of their clients (with respect to certain ethical standards).

The problem is that this presumes that a client only cares about maximising the financial return on their investment above all else. We have not, at this point, effectively incorporated environmental concerns into this “fiduciary duty”. If there were, we might be able to ensure that the company works not only in the financial interest of their customer but also in the interests of the natural environments they effect. 


Developed countries have the responsibility to ensure that companies operating domestically, do not exploit vulnerable environments to the point of detriment. In the world’s largest economies, it is paramount that more robust ecological standards are developed and applied vigorously to commercial practice. This could potentially be an effective approach to encouraging developing countries to actively engage in environmental protection.


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