The Fight to Stop Climate Change Must Include the Rainforest

Posted on December 31, 2014
Posted By: Jessica Kennedy

Most of us are concerned about how climate change will affect our corners of the world, but we need to be thinking about our most vital natural resources: tropical forests. 

Tropical and subtropical forests are the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and they even give us most of the oxygen we breathe.  These forests provide us with wood for fuel, paper, and building materials, and the plant life provides the world with a critical carbon sink.  Through photosynthesis, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen and glucose.  Glucose acts as food for the plant, and the carbon molecules fuel the plant’s growth and eventually compose about 50 percent of its weight.   Essentially, you could think of every tree in the rainforest as a chunk of carbon that was removed from the atmosphere.

Clearly, plants are important, and we should start managing them sustainably because deforestation is out of control. 

World Ecoregions; tropical and subtropical zones are highlighted in bright green. 

The map above illustrates where tropical and subtropical ecosystems (highlighted in bright green) are located.  The rainforests located in these zones are being cleared for agriculture and logged at alarming rates. 
The primary cause of deforestation around the world is clearing land for agriculture.  As populations grow there is more demand for food, and that food needs to be farmed somewhere.  Tropical climates are not only excellent for farming due to their extended growing seasons.  Agriculture earns money, and because most countries in the tropics have developing economies, there is more incentive for people to clear land and farm than there is to preserve forests.     

Logging forests for the paper, pulp, and wood products industry is another main cause of deforestation. This issue affects consumers directly, because consumers can choose responsibly sourced materials that do not contribute to forest destruction.  Consumers in the United States and other developed countries are in the best position to demand more sustainable forest products, because developed countries are the importers of materials harvested from tropical forests.  Using recycled or recyclable products, and products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, are good places to start. 

Timber, Pulp, & Paper industry:
The deforestation crisis in the tropics is not an issue isolated to those regions.  As sad as it is, deforestation is a lucrative business; exports of tropical timber amount to billions of dollars annually. This is driven by demand for industrial, paper, and wood products by developed countries.  Essentially, the purchasing habits of countries that import rainforest-sourced wood (and food products) fuel the economic incentive for the practice to continue.  This is not a simple problem, and it is not something that can be solved by recycling alone.  However, recycling does have some super advantages for manufacturers.  High on the list are the energy and carbon emission savings!

Once wood products harvested from forests and exported for timber, pulp, and paper industries, there is a long and energy-intensive process necessary to transform these raw materials into finished products.  So much more energy is required to process these raw materials instead of recyclable feedstock, that the entire supply chain seems flawed.

Making paper from recycled materials requires nearly half the amount of energy it takes to manufacture from virgin pulp, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  Most of the paper products we use daily can be made from recycled materials.  Office paper, cardboard, and even some building supplies can all be made from recycled material.  Not only is it very consumer- friendly to use recycled and sustainably sourced products, but money can be saved almost everywhere along the supply chain when manufacturers recycle. 

A few key points from the NRDC include:

Replacing a ton of virgin fiber to make magazine stock paper with a ton of recycled fiber reduces:

  • net greenhouse gas emissions by 47 percent
  • particulate emissions by 28 percent
  • wastewater by 33 percent
  • solid waste by 54 percent
  • wood use by 100 percent

Forty cases of copy paper made from 100 percent postconsumer paper saves:

  • 24 trees
  • 7,000 gallons of water
  • 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity
  • 60 pounds of air pollution

The most startling fact of all is the NRDC’s claim that,

Experts project a 70 percent increase in tropical and subtropical timber harvesting specifically for papermaking in less than a decade. In tropical forests, deforestation is already eliminating one acre of forest every second.

A cleared area of rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon

A shift to recycled materials, energy efficiency, and sustainably managed forest resources is clearly needed.

Re-foresting degraded and deforested areas of tropical regions can help remove carbon from our atmosphere, and ensure we can keep breathing that important oxygen. 

Authored By:
Jessica Kennedy has worked in the energy industry since 2008. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She earned her master's degree in Physical Geography & Environmental Systems from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Jessica's primary area of study is environmental conservation and climate change. Jessica is also an avid reader, painter, and guitar player.

Other Posts by: Jessica Kennedy

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December, 31 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

I'll not enter into any discussion regarding climate change as my views on it are well known here and I don't want to detract from what I consider to be an important contribution. However I do agree with you on the need to recycle materials (all materials). The "once through" cycle of materials consumption from natural occurrence through processing, manufacture, consumption and ending in the garbage dump must end if we are to survive on this planet. Nature of course recycles and re-uses everything. Nothing is wasted. We must use the same concepts that occur in the natural world to our own consumption habits. Unfortunately we are very far away from that. Our preference is to fill up holes in the ground with our waste instead of re-using and recycling all that we consume. But there are bright spots Jessica and I do think things are changing....not fast enough perhaps. In Ontario the beer industry recycles almost 99% of all packaging and containers sold. This includes aluminium beer cans, glass beer (and wine) bottles, cardboard boxes, beer caps etc. It has developed into a very very efficient process and the operator - Brewers Retail - really deserves full marks for what they do. However it seems infinitely stupid to me that we have a process to recycle aluminium beer cans yet the pop and beverage industry does not.

Just like paper it takes far far less energy to make aluminium from recycled cans than it does from raw Bauxite....but we still throw away over 50% of the cans made every year into the garbage. That is human stupidity at its finest.

Regarding deforestation - yes it is very sad to see it but in Brazil in particular the culp[rit is not pulp and paper industries but ethanol production since much of the land deforested is being used to grow sugar cane for ethanol....a terribly inefficient process.

Here in Ontario most of our pulp and paper mills are now idle due to the turndown in newsprint production (due to the internet and electronic media) and the recycling programs that now produce a material stream that does not required as much material from forests.

So, as with all these concepts the repercussions in terms of jobs are severe. Many northern communities here have been devastated as they are one industry towns.

So yes we do need to protect our forests and our trees but we need to provide the right incentives for people to change.


January, 05 2015

Richard Vesel says


Avoid the landmine, and we are in complete agreement. Waste is waste, and profligate waste is both foolish and tragic. Giving people incentives to change to sustainable practices is critical, and I would say that the manufacturers of products/packaging that contribute excessively to the untenable waste streams be made to bear the "true cost" responsibility.

As a company that voluntarily bears some of their true cost responsibility, First Solar accepts back aged and dead solar panels of their brand, in order to reprocess and recapture the heavy metals used in their thin film processes, most notably, cadmium.

More to the author's central topic, reforestation programs should be aggressively pursued. In North America, paper and lumber companies long ago figured out that they could replant and regrow their input crops, typically pine. Decades of managed forestry and consumption turn out to be better for them economically, and halt destruction of virgin forests, which are sorely in need of protection. Nominal costs of tree planting/replanting are less than $1 each, so the planet can afford to replant tens of billions annually, at a cost of a few dollars per capita per year. Protecting the real estate they grow on is another matter...


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