Saturday, 9 January 2010

Time to start your own Schindler's list

What interesting times we live in. The biggest bargain in history is sitting there right in front of our nose and nobody knows or cares about it. Everyone now has the opportunity not only to be a part-time philanthropist but also to save human lives by the dozen. Everyone can afford it but can they understand the need for it? And can they overcome the weight of social conventions to achieve it?

Let's hope they can.

We all have a pretty big impact on atmospheric pollution. Atmospheric pollution in turn drives temperature change which drives ecosystem destruction and species extermination. Each one of us contributes to climate change which in turn kills the poorest people in the developing world, the ones who do not have the means or the resources to live off of anything else but what they can grow. According to a scientist's calculations, the average Brit is responsible for around 9-10 deaths over the course of their lifetime in the developing world through their carbon emissions (5). If we can kill through negligence can we not save lives simply by caring?

One of Nature's most potent lines of defense against excessive build ups of atmospheric pollution are forests. Whether we can see the relationship between our own consumption and deforestation or not, forests are being cut down at breakneck speed to make room mainly for palm oil plantations used in 40%+ of the products we consume in supermarkets and soya plantations to feed cattle. When we buy mundane stuff like crackers or cheeseburgers, our wants are contributing to deforestation and climate change.

The Amazon has reduced in size by 20% over the past 20 years. It accounts for 20% of the world's supply of fresh water and oxygen. It is also one of the world's most important carbon sinks helping to stabilize the climate. If we lose the Amazon, we lose mankind. This, essentially, is the message that the Prince's Rainforest Project is attempting to pass on to us.

The 2005 drought in the Amazon is a fine example of what happens when an ally in regulating the climate becomes an enemy. In 2005, the Amazon released in the atmosphere the equivalent of 5 billion tonnes of CO2. That was more than the combined emissions of Japan and Europe. Let me stress this: that was more than the emissions of 900 million people who also happen to be some of the world's biggest emitters of CO2.

The Amazon released that much carbon into the air because instead of absorbing 2 billion tonnes of the stuff as it usually does through tree growth, trees shrank as a result of the heat wave and released carbon in the process. The drought was due in part to deforestation but also to climate change. The Amazon ecosystem is extremely sensitive to changes in ambient temperatures and very poorly equipped to deal with higher temperatures. As the forest is cut down, every other major ecosystem is affected because The Planet's ability to regulate the carbon cycle is weakened. And as temperatures rise as a result of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, the entire Amazon rainforest could burn down. With it, 20% of the world's supply of fresh water and oxygen would go as well as a gigantic carbon sink that helps to regulate the climate and facilitates life.

Only recently, charities have begun to realize that there was a way to stop deforestation simply by ensuring that the rainforest is worth more alive than dead (1). The most effective means to protect the forest it has been found has been to entrust it to the locals and to give the locals the means to look after it. (2) A large fund for the Amazon rainforest has already been set up by Norway. (3)

I first found out about the importance of these schemes when I read eminent climate scientist James Lovelock's Vanishing Face of Gaia. In his book he said that perhaps the only means us commoners had to make a difference was to support charities protecting rainforests. He mentioned two: Cool Earth (4) and the Prince's Trust.

So at Christmas, I jumped on the opportunity to make a difference. I made my Christmas and birthday present shopping list a no brainer and spent £30 buying half acres of rainforest for everyone I wanted to buy Christmas presents for. I was hoping that with a bit of luck I might inspire others to buy their relatives some rainforest too but I was kidding myself. I spent a little above £400, ensuring that 1820 tonnes of carbon stayed where they were, offsetting the equivalent of almost 2 Brit's lifetime emissions and based on Craig Simmon's calculations, saving the lives of around 18 people in the developing world (5). In addition, the certificates told me that I had protected 22 mature trees, 95 saplings, 6 endangered species of animals, 322 types of plant and over 11,000 species of insect and worm. That's per £30 certificate. Not bad for so little money hey? The gift of life, what more could you offer to someone for Christmas?

Not even my parents or my wife respected my wish to receive some rainforest for Christmas.To them, if a gift wasn't something that you could touch, it wasn't good enough. Saving someone else's life didn't capture their imagination or maybe they just didn't know about the link.

The only person I inspired to do the same thing was a committed green. When I explained it to him, he straight away saw the value of buying rainforest for others for Christmas. When you've spent £4000 on solar panels offsetting 2 tonnes of carbon a year and you can get an offset of 130 tonnes for £30, you realize that it's good value for money. Even when you compare it to a one tonne offset from installing renewables with say Pure, it's still 56 times cheaper. 23 pence per tonne, what a bargain!!!

But for others the bargain seemed decidedly too good to be true. One chap said that he had talked to his sister about the possibility of getting her some rainforest for Christmas only to be told that con men were selling rainforest on the markets in Kingston. People apparently, were being sold the same batch of rainforest 3-5 times. He was right I found out later (6). Just because some con men are taking advantage of people's empathy doesn't mean that everyone supplying the service is involved in one great big con.

I don't like wasting money. As a matter of fact, I tend to hoard it as I like to have something set aside for a rainy day. So you can imagine that I wasn't going to spend my hard earned money on a con. Prior to buying all my rainforest, I rang Cool Earth to enquire as to exactly what was the nature of the protection that was being offered to me and I was satisfied with the answer.

Cool Earth uses my £30 to place the half acre I buy into a local trust protected by legislation with the same power as EU and US style legislations. The land is put in a trust and the trust belongs to Cool Earth. Locals are then paid to look after it. The area I've bought is subsequently monitored by satellite every 5 days. What's more the half acres sold are located in areas at the frontier of deforestation and protect many more acres behind them. If anyone decides to cut the forest down, my £30 can be extracted and placed to protect another area. This however, is highly unlikely to occur as the rights to the trees on the land belong to the Trust and the Trust would have to sell it to speculators for any legal deforestation to occur. Of course, the Trust has been set up so that it cannot do that. So the only threat is illegal logging which is addressed by the satellite monitoring and the monitoring by the locals on the ground. All of this gives me about as good a guarantee as I could hope for in an area threatened by all sorts of profiteers and ruthless corporations.

I know my relatives are going to hate me and find me boring but I couldn't care less. As of now, I am going to use the social convention of buying presents for birthdays and Christmas to systematically buy rainforest for my loved ones. The other reason I want to be doing that is that it bothers me that every £1.25 I spend on presents generates one kilogram of carbon. The average Brit's annual consumption footprint is 3.7 tonnes and a lot of that comes from Xmas shopping.

I hope that others will see the wisdom of doing the same. We all have the awesome opportunity of saving someone else's life for £30 and of preserving an incredibly important ecosystem for future generations. At such a low price, we should all exploit every opportunity that presents itself to MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE, for ourselves, for others and for the only home we have. It's not up to anyone else but us.

(5) Carbon Detox, George Marshall, p25