As climate talks stall, Earth’s ‘carbon sponges’ choke

With world leaders still struggling to find an answer to climate change, two documentaries screened at the Pariscience film festival highlight the crucial – and costly – role played by the planet’s greatest natural assets against carbon emissions.

It’s been almost twenty years since representatives of 154 countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – two decades punctuated by largely fruitless attempts to agree on a strategy to fight global warming.

Like most recent gatherings, this year’s climate summit in the South African city of Durban, which is due to start on November 28, has been described as the last chance to come up with a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions, which expires next year.

To prepare for the key event, delegates from 192 countries gathered for talks this week in the Central American country of Panama, a narrow stretch of land covered by pristine rainforests and a gateway between two oceans.

The location of the discussions may have served as a reminder of the importance of the world’s greatest absorbers of carbon emissions: forests and oceans.

Between them – and in roughly equal shares – the planet’s forests and oceans absorb about half the carbon dioxide we pump into the air.

Their plight is the subject of two films screened at the 7th edition of the ‘Pariscience’ science film festival, held in the French capital between October 6 and 11.

‘Up in smoke’

Like much of the science related to climate change, different studies of deforestation have tended to produce differing results.

While some scientists say the rising levels of carbon dioxide, upon which all plants feed, have actually spurred a “greening” of the planet, most argue that such positive trends are more than offset by the increase in brush fires and plant diseases linked to climate change.

And to make matters worse, forests set alight by brush fires or slash-and-burn farmers in turn spew into the air the huge amounts of carbon dioxide stored by trees.

Up in smoke”, a documentary by Briton Adam Wakeling, follows scientist Mike Hands in his attempts to find an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture in equatorial rainforests; a form of subsistence farming that the British scientist blames for a “slowly enacted catastrophe”.

Between 250 and 300 million people throughout the world live on slash-and-burn subsistence farming. Yet, it is estimated that they account for a staggering 18% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Hands has concentrated his efforts on Honduras. “The logic here is that if you clear a patch of forest then the land is yours,” he told FRANCE 24. “But while you will get a good crop the first year, the soil will be largely barren by the next; so you need to clear more forestland. The cycle never ends.”

The British scientist says he has a solution that can stop the environmental catastrophe while also providing food security. Known as alley cropping, it involves planting food crops between rows of inga trees, which provide firewood, fertiliser and enough shade to keep out the weeds. His problem, however, is lack of funding.

Much of the film focuses on Hands’s attempts to secure support from politicians and development agencies, without which he cannot persuade people like Aladino, a Honduran subsistence farmer, to risk their livelihood by changing their farming techniques.

“Apart from a few dedicated individuals, it is hard to find governments with a genuine will to protect the rainforests,” said Hands. More often than not, what little support he gets turns out to be as short-lived as Aladino’s crops.

The film ends with the scientist poised to attend the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen as a member of the Honduran delegation, only for the mission to be called off as President Manuel Zelaya is deposed in a coup.

‘Tipping point’

Hands is not the only scientist struggling to get his message across. While deforestation at least stirs a debate, marine biologists say the plight of the world’s oceans is getting no attention at all.

Unlike the dwindling forests, oceans will continue absorbing their share of carbon emissions for the foreseeable future – but at the price of long-term damage to marine life.

“We used to think the oceans’ role as carbon sponges was a good thing. But then we realised that it was altering the very chemistry of our seas,” said Lina Hansson of the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

EPOCA’s work on ocean acidification is the subject of “Tipping Point”, a documentary by France’s Laurence Jourdan.

When carbon dioxide dissolves into the oceans it forms acids, which cause the pH of the oceans to decrease. Scientists talk of a “tipping point” when this alteration becomes irreversible.

“Recent tests have suggested that such an alteration can prevent calcified organisms, such as plankton and corals, from forming their shells – in turn affecting the larger marine species that feed on such organisms,” said Hansson.

The film points to the case of a “natural laboratory” off the volcanically-active coast of Naples, in the Mediterranean Sea, where underwater carbon dioxide vents have caused singled-celled organisms known as Foraminifera to shrink from 24 species to just 4.

The study off the Italian island of Ischia also showed that where calcified organisms disappear, non-calcifying ones such as algae and jellyfish take over.

But delegates meeting for climate talks in Panama need not travel far to see the effects of ocean acidification. Earlier this year, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute said experiments carried out on the Pacific coast of Panama had revealed how rising levels of carbon dioxide risked wiping out local coral reefs in the coming decades.

In a sign that things may be starting to move, several delegates have pushed for a price on shipping emissions – which account for 3% of the world’s carbon emissions – to fund aid to poor countries.

The hosts may not like the idea, though. Some 15,000 vessels cross the Panama Canal each year and the country’s flag flies on 20% of the world’s merchant ships.

Benjamin Dodman, France24, 7 October 2011. Article.

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