Hope amid destruction: Rainforest conservation

Tropical rainforests are amazing places. Humanity has a vested interest in conserving them for a multitude of reasons – but just how important are they to our survival? How does their destruction drive climate change and what can we do to save them?

To find out, we spoke to Cool Earth which is the ESG partner of our EMEA division. Thanks to Cool Earth’s unique community approach to conservation, the charity has a wealth of eye-opening on-the-ground insights.

In this first instalment of a two-part blog series examining rainforest conservation, we shed light on the intricacies of tropical rainforest biomes from their importance as a carbon store, to the multiplier effects of destruction.

Why are tropical rainforests so important?

We all know they are beautiful. Our minds are boggled by their sheer biodiversity. We know they are vital carbon stores. More soberly, we know they are disappearing at an alarming rate – but just how important are tropical rainforests to people and planet?

Matthew Owen, founder of Cool Earth, believes protecting tropical rainforests is absolutely vital to our future: “As the richest terrestrial ecosystems, tropical rainforests are the embodiment of hope. Together with our oceans, they are the best things on Planet Earth at storing carbon and cooling the planet.”

Of course, all trees are important and help us to manage climate change, but tropical rainforests outperform any other land-based habitat. NASA researchers have identified that the total amount of carbon emitted and absorbed in the tropics is four times more than in temperate and polar regions.

Matthew adds: “We all know that there is no solution to our climate crisis without rainforests. Deforestation is a disaster for a plethora of reasons. Biodiversity and community aside for a minute, the biggest threat is to humanity.

“Most people probably think that when you clear rainforest, you’re removing trees that absorb carbon, but the reality is far worse,” Matthew adds.

What you didn’t know about tropical rainforest destruction

According to National Geographic, drying wetlands and soil compaction from logging can increase emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Deforestation can alter rainfall patterns, further drying and heating the forest. Regular flooding and dam-building releases the potent methane gas, as does cattle ranching, a major reason rainforest is cleared2.

“The thing most of us fail to appreciate,” says Matthew, “is that, even before you factor in things like the use of industrial equipment or fire, the actual act of clearing rainforest releases a huge burst of CO2 into the atmosphere. From the roots and leaf litter to little branches you’re looking at 90% of that carbon ending up in the atmosphere. When it comes to fires, the picture is yet more bleak. Fires release black carbon, small particles of soot that absorb sunlight and increase warmth. With many rainforests growing on peat, burning creates a triple, quadruple whammy.”

In short, removing trees is just one very immediate aspect of deforestation. Habitat degradation is a far more permanent result that requires greater focus.

Scientists are understanding more about the positive impacts of trees daily. Recent studies show that trees cool the planet by one-third of a degree through biophysical mechanisms such as humidifying the air.

Deforestation is a very complex issue that even now is not fully understood.

Protecting rainforest buys us time to innovate  

Stabilising the climate is this generation’s biggest challenge, but one we will only achieve if we halt tropical rainforest destruction.

Planting a tree is a noble thing to do that will potentially have an impact in 150 years’ time – but actually if we’re to weigh this up, protecting primary rainforest that already exists will make a greater impact over those same 150 years if we succeed in keeping it intact.

This is because it takes ecosystems a long time to regenerate and reach their full potential in terms of biodiversity and carbon storage. Experts estimate it could take 150 years, perhaps even 1,000 years for re-planted forests to reach their full potential.

A recent IUCN issues brief tells us that healthy protected rainforest on the other hand has the potential to deliver 30% of the cuts in carbon dioxide emissions we need to achieve by 2030. Tropical rainforest biomes are the most advanced, cost-effective technology we have for capturing carbon.

The tandem effort of saving earths vital carbon stores and reducing greenhouse gas emissions means we can buy ourselves time to innovate. We can buy ourselves time to heal nature, regenerate damaged habitats, create new carbon stores for the future and switch to new planet friendly energy sources.

We have a window of opportunity. Let’s take it.

Coming next

In the second part of this blog miniseries we speak to Cool Earth about its ground-breaking work to prove that indigenous communities hold the key to rainforest conservation. Keep an eye on our blog to be sure you don’t miss it.

Get involved

Find out more about Hexagon’s work with Cool Earth in this blog announcing the launch of our partnership.

If you’re interested in supporting Cool Earth please donate here.


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