Google-powered map helps fight deforestation

Google are working with Global Forest Watch to provide satellite images on an online platform that provides reliable and up-to-date data on forests worldwide, along with the ability to track changes to forest cover over time.

Launched a year ago by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the platform has brought an unprecedented degree of transparency to the problem of deforestation, pointing to ways in which big data, cloud computing and crowdsourcing can help attack other tough sustainability problems.

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Can Money Grow on Trees?

For around the last two decades environmental campaigners have been warning us about the need to protect the Amazon rainforest.

The world’s largest stretch of rainforests is in South America, spread across eight South American countries and French Guiana, an overseas department of France. This wide band of forests is the one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth.

It produces water vapour that falls as rain within the region, and beyond, and is estimated to hold 60-90 billion tonnes of carbon in its vegetation; helping to combat climate change.

Today the rainforest is being cut down at the fastest rate for three years because the land it sits upon is much more valuable as cleared farmland, which can be used to graze cattle and grow fast growing crops such as soybeans. This is a problem because deforestation (without reforestation) accounts for 20% of world wide carbon emissions.

However, the rainforests themselves provide so-called “ecosystem services”. They influence weather systems on a vast scale, produce rainfall and capture CO2 from the atmosphere, which reduces global warming.

Now a new plan has been proposed to save the rainforest by making it worth more standing than chopped down. A Brazilian forestry institute in the middle of the Amazon is measuring vapour and carbon levels to calculate an exact value for the “services” that the rainforest provides so that this can be given a monetary value. After all if there is no rainforest, there will be less rain falling on agricultural land worldwide and less carbon sequestration.

The institute hopes that the rest of the world will finally realise that if the rainforest is to be saved then the benefitting countries will have to help to pay for it. The goal is to issue bills to governments and polluting companies and make them pay the costs to the Amazon citizens who live in the region and are keeping the forest alive.

In Guyana people hope that when the standing forest’s true contribution to the planet is recognised, the country will be able to charge for an “avoided deforestation” programme.

The government there has issued statements, that it has not received many positive responses, despite this offer being on the table for over two years.

Perversely, under the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases, there is no mechanism for rewarding a country like Guyana for retaining its standing forest.

Only land that has been deforested and then replanted with trees can attract some payments, despite deforestation being responsible for 20% of world wide carbon emissions, which is a larger figure than the globe’s entire transport system.

Roland A. Jansen

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