The following post is by Ken Levenson, guest blogger at Climate Progress.

Rainforest deforestation

Pushed from center stage by the expected record arctic ice and permafrost melt, tropical rain forest destruction has been elbowing its way back through the smoke and into view. This Mongabay article, “Papua New Guinea’s rainforests disappearing faster than thought,” is one such look:

Previously, the forest loss was estimated at 139,000 hectares per year between 1990 and 2005. But now?

Using satellite images to reveal changes in forest cover between 1972 and 2002 … Papua New Guinea lost more than 5 million hectares of forest over the past three decades … Worse, deforestation rates may be accelerating, with the pace of forest clearing reaching 362,000 hectares (895,000 acres) per year in 2001. The study warns that at current rates 53 percent of the country’s forests could be lost or seriously degraded by 2021.

Stunning. Adding insult to injury — the good news as reported last Thursday in the New Straits Times:

Abdullah, who is also Finance Minister, said the existing oil palm plantations were enough to cater to current demands and there was no need for the opening of new plantations at the moment.

Fast forward three days:

Sarawak will continue to open up more land for oil palm plantations, Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud said here yesterday. He said this would not go against the prime minister’s directive on the clearing of land for oil palm plantation as it did not apply to the state.

So much for Malaysia lending a hand.

The narrative turns from bad to worse as we turn toward the Amazon. It’s tough to complete with the destructive capacity of the permafrost melt, but the Amazon is making up for it in its willy-nilly approach to climate destruction. This recent article by Rhett Butler at environment 360 sets the scene:

Historically, the Amazon has proven resilient to climate change, human disturbance by pre-Colombian populations, and even periods of fire and extreme drought during millennial El-Niño-like events. Yet the present onslaught of forces affecting the Amazon is unprecedented. Never before has the region experienced the simultaneous impact of large-scale forest loss and degradation, fragmentation, fires, and global warming. Many scientists and conservationists are deeply worried, not only because of the loss of biodiversity that accompanies destruction of the forest, but also because the cutting and torching of this vast repository of carbon will further heat up a planet already warming at an alarming pace.

What are the numbers?

Brazilian satellite data from late 2007 show a marked increase in the number of fires and deforestation in the key soy and cattle-producing states of Pará and Mato Grosso. Both experienced increases in forest loss of 50 percent or more over the same period in 2006, coupled with a large jump in burning — in the case of Mato Grosso, a spike of more than 100 percent. The 123,000 fires detected across the Brazilian Amazon by the Terra and AQUA satellites are the most since such measurements began in 2003. Deforestation in the last five months of 2007 was expected to exceed 7,000 square kilometers, an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island.

Yes, the drivers of ethanol, soy, and cattle are well documented, but as is our habit, we tempt much worse:

As demand for biofuels continues to grow, there is a very real possibility that oil palm could become a dominant crop in the Amazon — an ominous development considering that the planting of oil palm plantations has been the driving force behind the recent destruction of huge areas of rain forest in Indonesia and Malaysia. Scientists estimate that Brazil has 2.3 million square kilometers of forest land suitable for oil palm, equal to the forested areas conducive to soy and sugar production combined.

The bottom line doesn’t get much lower:

Writing in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions B earlier this year, Daniel Nepstad and colleagues predicted that 55 percent of Amazon forests will be “cleared, logged, damaged by drought, or burned” in the next 20 years if deforestation, forest fires, and climate trends continue apace. The damage will release 15 to 26 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, adding to a feedback cycle that will worsen both warming and forest degradation in the region. Nepstad says this scenario is a conservative one — forest loss and emissions could be far worse.

It’s worth repeating: 15 to 26 billion tons of carbon by 2028 — from the Amazon alone. (That’s the equivalent of 55 to 95 billion tons of CO2.)

Nepstad is saying this is conservative — it could be “far worse.” Will we see the conservative estimate? Or, worse? Or, far worse realized? (Hint: remember our climate change story — so far, “bad to worse.”)

But let’s not throw hope under the bus — in the abstract Dan Nepstad states:

Several important trends could prevent a near-term dieback. As fire-sensitive investments accumulate in the landscape, property holders use less fire and invest more in fire control. Commodity markets are demanding higher environmental performance from farmers and cattle ranchers. Protected areas have been established in the pathway of expanding agricultural frontiers. Finally, emerging carbon market incentives for reductions in deforestation could support these trends.

Putting some numbers to this: “Managing Forests for Climate Change Mitigation” by Josep Canadell and Michael Raupach in the June 13 issue of Science ($ub. req’d) was conveniently referenced in this Mongabay article.

The article summarizes:

Noting that 13 million hectares of forest are felled each year, releasing 1.5 billion tons of carbon, Canadell and Raupach write that reducing deforestation rates by 50 percent by 2050 and stopping deforestation when countries reach 50 percent of their current forested area would avoid emissions equivalent to 50 billion tons of carbon.

Quoting Canadell and Raupach:

“This ’50:50:50:50′ estimate shows that even with continuing deforestation over the next 40 years, the mitigation potential is large, in addition to protecting the sink capacity of forest for continued removal of atmospheric CO2.”

Yes, the mitigation potential is large, but is our inertia larger still?

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.