Finally Seeing The Forest For The Trees


It is a paradox that only in the Anthropocene epoch — so designated by scientists to define our age as when human civilization has most impacted the Earth — are we finally clearly able to see the forest for the trees. As conscious creatures only belatedly aware that the collective activities of our species have provoked wholesale calamity for the planet, we are rushing to find new ways to pull the chestnuts out of the fire of a climate that is heating up.

In The WorldPost this week, we examine the latest innovations in this effort, from reforestation in China and silvopasture practices that make beef less terrible for the environment, to smart carbon-capture technologies and the restoration of American chestnut trees through bioengineering.

In a short video documentary, Lu Liu and Clarissa Pharr report on reforestation in Hebei province, the polluted, industry-heavy area that encircles smoggy Beijing, where China’s “ecological civilization” campaign proposes to plant 16 million acres of trees this year. As they illustrate in a profile of one farmer, fixing the wholesale problem has real costs. Banned from growing his wheat and corn crops in areas being newly reforested, he can only make a living now by joining other villagers planting trees at the government wage of about $15 a day. By early spring, they had planted 1,300 acres of trees.

China’s project has a historical precedent in 17th century Japan when, facing deforestation, the Tokugawa shoguns imposed heavy regulations on farmers, managed the harvest of trees and pushed new, lighter and more efficient construction techniques. Today, even though Japan is the most densely populated country in the developed world, nearly 70 percent of the island nation is covered by forests.

While most of us think of smokestacks and tailpipes when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, Yale researcher

Eric Toensmeier

reports that “livestock production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Over 14 percent of human-caused emissions are the result of livestock production, with methane from ruminant livestock like cattle the largest contributor. Grazing systems are responsible for 20 percent of this, though they only produce about 4 percent of the global meat and milk supply.”

To curb this long-standing source of global warming, he proposes the spread of a practice called “silvopasture,” which is already in place on around 15 percent of grazing land globally, most notably in Latin America. “Silvopasture systems combine trees, livestock (ruminants like cattle, sheep and goats) and grazing,” he writes. “Ranchers and pastoralists plant trees or manage the land for spontaneous tree growth. The trees provide shade, timber and food for livestock. In most silvopasture systems, the carbon captured in soil and trees more than makes up for the greenhouse gases (methane and nitrous oxide) that ruminants emit through belches and flatulence.”

Promising though such practices as reforestation and silvopasture may be, they will not be enough to meet the Paris agreement climate goals, say Jan Christoph Minx and Gregory Nemet. “Simply reducing emissions from their current level is unlikely to be enough to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. In fact, we need to remove huge amounts of carbon dioxide — billions of tons per year — to meet these goals because we have repeatedly delayed our decarbonization efforts.”

Though aware there is no one silver bullet, they call for an acceleration of research and development in a diverse range of new technologies. “There are high-tech options such as bioenergy — energy from any form of biomass such as plants, trees or other organic matter — combined with carbon capture and storage,” they write. “With this approach, the biomass absorbs CO2 from the air through the process of photosynthesis; it is released again when it is burned to produce electricity in power plants but then immediately captured and stored underground. There is also the possibility of filtering CO2 directly out of the air through chemical processes.”

Even as such technologies become available, the authors warn, they are not being deployed “at the required speed.” Prudence dictates, they continue, that “we need to bend the path of continued increases in greenhouse gas emissions and start an era of rapid and sustained emissions reductions.”

Others look to advances in biotechnology for solutions. Andrew Newhouse considers the advantages of genetically engineered trees that grew out of an effort to restore the American chestnut forests nearly decimated by blight.

“By breeding transgenic trees with surviving wild American chestnuts,” Newhouse says, “we can incorporate genetic diversity and regional adaptations to future generations of American chestnuts, while also protecting them from chestnut blight. Breeding with regionally adapted chestnuts, moreover, or even with hybrid or backcross chestnuts, means that a restoration program could potentially address unrelated challenges, such as climate change and other pests and pathogens.”

He concludes: “Biotechnology certainly isn’t the only tool we have to protect trees from environmental threats, but it can be a safe and effective option to restore healthy and resilient trees to native ecosystems.”

Blowing up North Korea’s nuclear test site was no small matter 

“When President Trump abruptly canceled the summit with North Korea last week,” writes nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, “it overshadowed the closing of North Korea’s nuclear test site just a few hours before. Although it is not irreversible, blowing up the site’s tunnels, sealing the entrances and removing test site facilities and equipment was nevertheless a serious step toward denuclearization.”

Hecker is one of the few who knows what he is talking about. As the former director of America’s own Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico, he has visited North Korea’s test site four times. 

“By closing the nuclear test site,” Hecker argues, “Pyongyang took a step considerably beyond a nuclear testing moratorium. Although North Korea could surely excavate and prepare new tunnels, having to start over or complete an existing tunnel complex for testing would cost time and money. North Korea has successfully contained its nuclear tests deep in the mountains at Punggye-ri, which indicates a suitable geologic site, meticulous tunnel design and construction, and strong containment practices. It would need the same for any new site.”

Hecker contends the further tests required for North Korea to complete its nuclear force with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States cannot now go forward — “at least not in the immediate future” — since the test site has been destroyed.

Having been engaged in dismantling and securing nuclear weapons through U.S.-Russian cooperation after the Cold War, Hecker’s assessment is that any complete denuclearization of North Korea could take up to 15 years.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.