Protecting Russia′s forests could help curb climate change | Global Ideas | DW | 02.03.2010
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Global Ideas

Protecting Russia's forests could help curb climate change

Images of trees being felled in tropical nations dominate the debate on saving the world's forest. But forests in the cold Northern Hemisphere also play a key role in protecting the world's climate.

Trees in Russia's Bikin Valley

Russia's Bikin Valley is home to large coniferous forests that store vast amounts of carbon

A crane effortlessly lifts one log after the other into the air. For hours, trees are being loaded onto a truck in a clearing in the Bikin river valley in far eastern Russia at temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius.

Jewgeniy Lepyoschkin, a forest expert at the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) office in Vladivostok, takes one photograph after another. For once, what's happening here in the Bikin Valley is a positive sign - the loggers must clear the area.

The WWF and the indigenous people of the region have sway over an area of 460,000 hectares of Siberia's Bikin river valley that they've leased from the Russian government for the next 49 years to protect it from deforestation.

Cut trees in the Bikin Valley

The Bikin Valley is threatened by illegal logging

"The virgin forest here plays an important role in climate protection - our leased land alone captures some 48 million tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide," Lepyoschkin said.

Germany's government and the German branch of the WWF are supporting the project within the framework of an international climate protection initiative. They're investing some 2,5 million euros in the project for three years. After that, the leased land is to be financed through carbon credits.

A key region for the global climate

Large swathes of the Bikin Valley are covered by so-called boreal forests consisting of pine, spruce, birch and larch trees. They're called "Taiga" in Russian and account for more than a third of the worldwide forest cover and form a green belt north of the Equator between the 40th and the 70th latitude.

Some 60 percent of these forests lie in Russia but the non-governmental organization "Russian Forest" estimates that only one to three percent of them are sufficiently protected.

That's why the international "Taiga Rescue network," has been supporting Russian environment groups and indigenous peoples to protect the forest from large-scale tree logging and illegal felling.

"The boreal forests are a key ecological region, which can affect the climate on account of their sensitivity and size," the network said in a recent report.

A ticking climate bomb

Boreal forests in Canada and Scandinavia are also threatened by unsustainable wood production and a steady exploitation of the region by humans. Environmental organization Greenpeace has been campaigning for years in northern Canada and Finland to protect boreal forests from extensive logging for the paper industry.

As well as storing vast quantities of carbon dioxide, an intact boreal forest is also more resistant to the effects of global warming. But just the opposite holds true for boreal forests which have lost their strongest hardwood trees, according to a study commissioned by Greenpeace in Canada.

Russia's Bikin Valley

Forests in the Northern Hemisphere play a crucial role in protecting the global climate

One of the biggest problems is the thawing of permafrost on ground that's covered in large part by coniferous trees. That releases harmful gases such as methane that has been stored in the ground for centuries. Healthy forests would manage to capture it in the ground.

"As against that, a dying boreal forest could become a ticking climate bomb," Greenpeace forest expert Oliver Salge said.

Tropics edge out boreal forests in public debate

Despite their importance, forests in cold regions of the world play a marginal role in debates over deforestation.

"Unfortunately there's a real perception gap in public opinion," said Frank Moerschel from WWF Germany, one of the coordinators of the Bikin Valley project. "Tropical forests and their protection seems more attractive and exotic because the images of falling giant trees that we see on television are so dramatic," he said.

The changes in boreal forests may not be so visually spectacular, he said, but they're just as "scandalous."

"We can't afford to close our eyes to it."

While environmental activists have been granted the authority to protect the forests for the next 49 years, they hope that the Russian state will give the region official protection status after that. But that may happen sooner than expected thanks to the Bikin Valley's famous Amur tiger, which faces extinction.

In fall this year, politicians from countries which are home to tigers are to meet in Vladivostok. If Russian Premier Vladimir Putin makes the region's protection a priority, then it won't just be the Amur tiger that stand to profit.

Author: Mareike Aden (sp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop