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Mitigating climate change: Trees to the rescue?

02 March 2007, The Tide Online

After decades of denial about global warming and its after effects, the world was recently been jolted by reports of extreme floods in Kenya, Canada, Indonesia and Southern Africa, indications that global warming may be the chief culprit.  There have also been increased cases of drought in the Sahelian region of Africa and increased incidence of hurricanes in the USA.  

In central Nigeria, global warming is being blamed for the violence between nomadic cattle herders and peasant farmers who have been locked in conflict over scarce land for decades, as the desert creeps southwards.  Similarly, deforestation, dwindling water supplies and rising sea levels could spark mass migrations, provoking ethnic conflict as dire predictions by the United Nations indicate that temperatures may rise by 1.4 - 5.8 Celsius by 2100.

“Regions that are already least secure in food production, like sub-Saharan Africa, stand to be the worst affected by global warming as wet areas become wetter and dry areas become drier,” says a recent global report on climate change. 

 “Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change,” said Jennifer Morgan, director of the Global Climate Change Programme at conservation group WWF said, citing its extreme poverty as further impeding its ability to cope.  To compound it further, desertification also threatens to drive millions of Africans from their homes, according to a recent international report drawing on the work of 1,360 scientists in 95 nations.  

In one instance, researchers and the government say that Uganda’s climate has become hotter and its rains more erratic in the last decade, posing a threat to its key coffee crop.  Others point at gullies of eroded, barren earth scarring the shoreline of Lake Victoria, which borders Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, as illustrating the extent of the problem.  Rising sea temperatures are also among the threats seen to the coral reefs off Africa’s lush east coast, the life-blood of poor coastal communities dependent upon fisheries and tourism.  

On the whole, the results have been loss of lives, destruction of property, injury and hardship inflicted on humanity, underscoring the fact that global warming is both a reality and a phenomenon that begs for collective action.  It is against this backdrop that strategies are being worked out to contend with the challenges of how to mitigate the effects of global warming, particularly on  such vulnerable areas as Africa, already scarred by deforestation, poor soil health and drought, among others.  

In pursuit of acceptable strategies, spanning over 15 years of work, a few protocols and conventions have been adopted.  They include the Montreal and Kyoto protocols targeted at reducing the emission of carbon dioxide globally.  The Kyoto protocol, for instance, aims at curbing the air pollution blamed for global warming, requiring countries to cut the emission of carbon dioxide and other green house gases.  Kyoto, which became legally binding on February 16, 2005 demand a 5.2 per cent cut in GHG emission from industrialised world as a whole by 2012.  

The protocols have in most cases failed to achieve set emission targets as countries adopted a laid back approach to meeting set objectives and commitments contained in the protocols.  In particular, countries, notably the worst polluters, have continued to place their economies above the commitments to the protocols thereby jeopardising its realisation much to the chagrin of most developing countries and environmentalists.  

The new initiative tagged “Plant a billion trees” launched at the 12th conference of parties to the Kyoto protocol in Nairobi in 2006, seems to hold the key to unlocking the devastation occasioned by global warming.  

The campaign fashioned after the works of Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wangari Maathai, and sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) hopes to realise the target of planting one billion trees by the end of 2007.  

Maathai said that the vital importance of voluntary collective action in the fight against climate change was being  undertaken with the launch of the campaign, which she noted, was an action the world must take today to preserve the climate for future generations.  She said that the target of 2007 was achievable if one billion people out of the world’s estimated population of six billion “dig a hole, put a tree in it and water it.”  

The campaign is premised on the science of using trees as ‘carbon sinks’ whereby they soak up carbon dioxide and release into the atmosphere oxygen.  According to UNEP, rainforests cover only seven per cent of the land on earth but contain nearly half of all the trees on earth and generate about 40 per cent of the world’s oxygen.  “In one year, an average tree inhales 12 kilograms (26 pounds) of carbon dioxide and exhales enough oxygen for a family of four for a year,” UNEP said.  

Recognising that there were many tree planting schemes round the world, UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner said that the new initiative was aimed at federating these efforts in view of its benefit to mankind.  Steiner said that achieving set targets under the campaign must not be confined to the corridors of the negotiation halls but offer a direct and straight forward path down which all sectors of society would step to.  

“In-recreating lost forests and developing new ones, we can also address other concerns including loss of biodiversity, improving water availability, stemming desertification and reducing erosion,” he said.  Steiner added that “the billion tree campaign is but an acronym, but it can also be practically and symbolically a significant expression of our common determination to make a difference in developing and developed countries alike.”  

He said that the world has but a short time to avert serious consequences as a result of climate change.  Under the initiative, people, communities, businesses and industry, civil societies and government are being encouraged to make commitments to planting trees.  

Prince Albert II of Monaco, says one of the primary aims of the campaign is to create an unprecedented mobilisation in favour of the environment.  Albert, who is the patron of the initiative, said that the project would encourage and coordinate the planting of local species initiated by governments, NGOs, communities and even children.  “The campaign is a simple gesture, yet a strong symbol of sustainable development,” he said.  

Al Gore, former US vice president, added credence to the efficacy of tree planting saying that “the symbolism and substantive significance of planting a tree has universal power in every culture and every society on earth, and it is a way for individual men, women and children to participate in creating solutions to the environmental crisis.”

In Nigeria, governments at various levels have in the past two decades embraced tree planting campaigns aimed at greening the desert, checking desertification, degradation and erosion in most parts of the country.  The campaign, experts noted, has, however, degenerated into an annual fanfare without sustainable strategies to ensure that the campaign succeeded.  

Dr Tony Nyong, an environmentalist with International Development Research Centre, describes the tree planting campaign in Nigeria as a mere jamboree.  Nyong said that the present campaign needed to be overhauled and trees such as palm trees be included in the campaign in view of its carbon sequestration potentials.  

On a debit side, a recent research by scientists at the Nairobi-based World Agro Forestry Centre (ICRAF), appear to question the benefits of the ‘plant a billion tree campaign’ as it said trees utilise more water than hitherto believed.  The research noted that trees such as Eucalyptus consume as much as 2000 litres of water daily while Pinus Patula consumes between 500 to 1000 litres daily.  

Thus, the implication of planting trees such as  Eucalyptus under the campaign is that watershed management would be under serious threat if one million of such species were included in the campaign.  The research findings noted that average rainfall in East African catchments was between 1200 to 1800mm, Eucalyptus, it said, would consume most of this water.  Plantations of thirsty trees according to the research, funded by the Swedish International Developmental Agency, will only be viable in high rainfall areas, run-off where water collects, and where ground water is more readily available.  

It cautioned that “avoiding plantations of fast growing trees that can easily exacerbate water shortage will decrease the impact of climate change.”  One of the lead scientists in the research, Dr. Chin Ong said that the plant a one billion tree campaign must, therefore, target local species that would not pose any threat to the watershed.  

He said that the research should be able to identify such local tree species that would not only conserve water for the needs of the rural populace, but also assist in scaling up their livelihood.  Armed with this knowledge, inaction would not be accepted as an excuse for the world not to tame one of the latest threats to humanity, especially in Africa the acclaimed cradle of man.

*  Abutu writes for NAN.

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