Seeing the wood

Climate-change negotiators are right to focus on forests – they offer a path to adaptation as well as carbon storage, Lu Zhi tells Yang Fangyi.

Lu Zhi is the founder of China’s Shan Shui Conservation Center and professor of conservation biology at Peking University. In conversation with Yang Fangyi, she discusses the role of biodiversity preservation in adapting to climate change, how to get the most out of forests and the pros and cons of China’s energy-saving measures.

Yang Fangyi: What do you hope will come out of the Cancún climate-change conference?

Lu Zhi: I hope to see consolidation of existing achievements on issues such as funding mechanisms and forest protection and the breakthroughs necessary to allow a legally binding agreement to be reached at the climate-change talks in South Africa in 2011.

YF: This year is the International Year of Biodiversity and the UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook report has identified climate change as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. As a conservationist, how do you view this relationship?

LZ: Biodiversity is of significance to climate change both in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Ecosystems absorb greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and so protecting ecosystems and sound ecological services are one of the most important ways of responding to climate change.

For example, forest ecosystems are one of the largest land-based carbon stores and protecting them will prevent that carbon being released. Protection of forests is currently one of the topics receiving most attention in climate talks, demonstrating that its importance has been recognised. Some 20% of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from the destruction or degradation of forests. Protecting these systems would make an enormous contribution to emissions reduction, as well as preserving the habitats of endangered species. However, while implementing these programmes, we need to ensure the participation of local communities, allowing them to benefit too.

A key idea is that, as forests absorb carbon dioxide, they can carry market value in the form of carbon credits – an important mechanism in the creation of a system of ecological compensation. But we shouldn’t see forests simply as a source of lumber or carbon credits. We need to value their multiple functions: maintaining sources of water, preserving biodiversity and providing livelihoods for local communities; and, while protecting the existing forest ecosystems, we need to create healthy forests and earn the benefits of carbon storage.

Natural forests are more stable and fix carbon for longer periods than monoculture plantations. Over the last few years we’ve been trialling “panda carbon storage” schemes in south-west China, aiming to make use of carbon markets at the same time as creating forests suitable for panda habitation and working with local communities, who will become the restorers and managers of those forests – in other words, maximising the benefits of the forests.

Forests like that are actually more attractive to the carbon markets: carbon credits from single-species forests aren’t worth as much as those created by our forests. This proves that purchasers of forest carbon stores don’t just look at carbon storage, but also at our ability to adapt to climate change through protection of biodiversity. Protection of biodiversity should be the preferred route to adapting to climate change.

YF: So what should actually be done?

LZ: Responding to climate change needs a complete adaptation system, founded on the protection of ecosystems. This is also one of the least costly measures. And it should not be passive adaptation, but adaptation that actively uses ecosystems.

For example, it is cheaper to protect vegetation and use that vegetation to regulate water flow than it is to build a dam to prevent flooding. This can also reduce the impact of climate change on endangered species. During the drought in south-west China earlier this year, we experimented with these methods, channelling water from nature reserves to surrounding communities. As a result, those communities now have a stronger motive to protect the ecosystems. It’s a win-win situation for ecosystems and for dealing with climate change.

YF: The Copenhagen climate-change summit could be seen as the starting line for a “green race” between different countries. In this last year, do you think there has been increased competition?

LZ: Since Copenhagen, we have seen the idea of low-carbon economy and low-carbon lifestyles become more and more part of the mainstream, and the green race is clearly faster than last year. China’s business community has visibly been making more effort. Emission targets have finally reached the company level and the ability of business to achieve those targets affects government confidence in committing to cuts.

Some private entrepreneurs have taken the lead, making very effective cuts within their own firms – in some cases even going beyond government targets or achieving emission cuts in absolute terms [as opposed to per unit of production]. For example Marjorie Yang of the Esquel Group cut power use by 30% in absolute terms between 2005 and 2008 at the same time as increasing production. This was extremely difficult – the company invested nearly 100 million yuan [US$15 million] in new technology, research and development and upgrading equipment.

As pressure on the climate increases, so will pressure to cut emissions. For businesses, acting early allows them to obtain a better position and improve competitiveness. The example of the Esquel Group is a case in point – after making its cuts, it was in a position where it was conserving resources and enjoying an excellent image overseas, which in turn won it more orders. This is great for company growth and competitiveness.

Last year, China organised a business delegation to Copenhagen, which included [property developers] Vanke and Vantone and Broad Air Conditioning, all of which have achievements in energy-saving and emissions-reduction. Early action by business increases our confidence in making these cuts.

The Chinese government has taken a range of measures – for example undertaking to cut carbon intensity by 40% to 45% on 2005 levels by 2020; to ensure that, by 2020, non-fossil fuels will account for about 15% of all primary energy consumption; and that tree-planting, forest creation and better forest management will increase forest area by 40 million hectares on 2005, or 1.3 billion cubic metres in terms of volume. We’ve seen the gradual realisation of these binding targets in the 11th Five Year Plan and they have also been included in drafts of the 12th Five Year Plan. These measures show that energy-saving and emissions-reduction in China are driven by their own needs rather than international negotiation. Of course, there are issues.

YF: What do mean by “issues”?

LZ: The intent behind these binding targets is good, but in implementation it is more important to have incentive measures for both public and market participation than to rely solely on administrative measures. For example, this year we saw power supply to businesses cut off in order to save energy, when you could actually use public participation and market mechanisms to achieve that goal. The use of administrative measures alone will damage the public interest.

Also, there has been a lack of attention paid to the environment in some alternative-energy projects. For example, the building of large hydropower dams is done without comprehensive, long-term planning and there is a lack of rational use of water resources. Some hydropower stations have a grave impact on biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems and, taken as a whole, are not necessarily beneficial. Large dams will actually impact on our ability to adapt to climate change. There is not enough research into and measurement of water resources.

Forestry has been given an important role to play in the national response to climate change, but some forestry projects are carried out without full understanding of forest ecosystems – they replace natural vegetation with fast-growing artificial forests, reduce biodiversity and weaken the ability of these ecosystems to provide ecological services and adapt to climate change.

Yang Fangyi is climate change officer at Shan Shui Conservation Center.

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