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Climate change a systemic crisis

On land and sea the impacts of climate change intensify. But the UN’s leading climate change official, Yves de Boer, has admitted that the Copenhagen summit will not deliver a binding treaty to follow on from Kyoto.

Host nation Denmark is already preparing a compromise text to be introduced if all else fails; Plan B will contain pious words and promises of further talks but no commitment to emissions reductions.

We saw this failure in microcosm this week when it emerged that the most crucial clause has been dropped from the draft REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) agreement, one of the documents on the table at Copenhagen.

The clause would stop countries from felling ancient forests and replacing them with palm oil plantations, while still claiming subsidies for carbon emissions reductions. African governments objected – they want the right to do what South East Asia and South America are already doing – exploiting virgin forest for massive profit.

And it emerged that it was British officials who pushed for the deal to go ahead without this crucial caveat.

Allowing more rain forest destruction, then subsidising environmentally damaging palm oil monoculture – that’s capitalist business as usual. As Simon Counsell, of the Rainforest Foundation, said: "If this is not changed, the agreement will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Deforestation currently contributes 20% of carbon emissions, more than global transport. Without a reduction in felling, it will be impossible to achieve the reductions needed to halt climate change.

Meanwhile, a new assessment of the world’s “blue forests” shows they too are suffering a dramatic deterioration.

Satellite monitoring over 25 years shows that the rise in water surface temperature in the world’s large marine ecosystems (LME’s – the coastal waters adjacent to continents) is 2-3 times higher than the estimates the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was working with.

A report presented to the International Waters Conference meeting in Australia, said 70% of global fish stocks within LMEs are overexploited. This is reducing the availability of fish for food, and is especially critical off the coasts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, where fish is a major protein source.

An unprecedented volume of nitrogen pollution is causing a greater frequency and extent of harmful algal blooms, oxygen depletion events and dead zones. The nitrogen build-up comes from artificial fertilizer washed into the sea.

And the same nitrates are partly responsible for another phenomenon documented by the conference organisers.

The Global Environment Facility reports that about 2 billion hectares of land globally – almost a quarter of all the landscape used by humans – is badly degraded. Reduced soil fertility, the loss of forest cover, and the erosion of prairies, is reducing the global potential to grow food and maintain ecosystems.

About two-thirds of agricultural land has been degraded to some extent during the last 50 years, and up to 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.

Land, sea and forest – all threatened with reckless destruction. This can only be understood as a systemic problem with its root cause the drive for profit at any cost.

A systemic problem needs a systemic answer. We need to move into a new era of stewardship and husbandry – concepts alien to capitalism. Only a not-for-profit future can save the forests – both blue and green.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
29 October 2009

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