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An Inconvenient Truth Ten Years Later

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In 2006, Al Gore’s influential documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, became a turning point in the climate change conversation. It’s clear, urgent message of pending severe global ecological degradation sparked a massive debate and action. It has led to substantial commitments worldwide recently that hopefully will slow and reverse the threat. Despite these recent commitments, most people still are not optimistic about the future, thinking the time is late and the steps are too little too late. Is it so? Well, maybe not….

A few weeks ago, a decade after An Inconvenient Truth’s release, Mr. Gore delivered a powerful follow-up TED Talk that updates his message. He basically says we now have reason to be optimistic. Yes, the guy that rang the alarm bells the loudest of all has turned somewhat optimistic. This is not small news.

The talk begins with what we all already know—the continued catastrophic manifestations of climate change that have become a part of our lives and will continue to increase in coming decades. He documents the climbing average yearly temperatures, the rising sea levels, the weather pattern changes, and the increasing incidence of destructive super storms.

But, surprisingly, the talk then turns to reasons to be hopeful of the large challenges facing us.

He focuses on the unexpectedly fast, exponential growth of the renewable energy industry—how its continuing cost improvements have far exceeded estimates and have led to dramatic increases in renewables’ part of the energy mix worldwide.

He discusses how renewable energy is near crossing the grid parity point, “the threshold below which renewable energy is cheaper than electricity from burning fossil fuels.” Once renewable energy sources are cheaper, Gore explains, the market will naturally shift towards investing in the more financially attractive option.

Gore calls on the young people of America and the world to focus their energies on finding more solutions to the problem of climate change. He uses the analogy of the success of the young engineers and technicians who worked on making the first manned mission to the Moon possible. He points out that the average age of the brain trust of engineers and techies behind the Moon landing was only 26.

Mr. Gore mentions forests as a carbon sink briefly in the presentation, but focuses his attention on technology. At Forever Redwood, we see the historic degradation of forests as a major contributor to global warming, and we see the restoration of healthy, mature forests as an essential piece of the solution.

A UN study found that at the time of the most recent retreat of the glaciers, approximately 15,000 years ago, 55% of the landmass outside of the arctic circles was forested. In 2000, that percentage had dropped to 22%, or to 40% of the original forested acreage globally.

Forests are one of the major carbon sinks of the earth because trees are made primarily of carbon. And, while total acreage is important, more important is how much carbon per acre is being held by 21st Century forests globally.

The short answer is 1/7th the amount held before.

How do we get to such a small number?

A forest undisturbed by human activity tends to develop trees of all ages with almost all the wood volume concentrated in its large ancient trees. Most of the forests of the earth today have been cut in some way. Many are cut regularly. Only a relatively small fraction of the earth’s forests are protected in parks and preserves or are still uncut.

Most of the forests of the world are working forests. Most are cut regularly, and most, still today, are overcut unfortunately. We can estimate conservatively that we now have less than 35% of the standing timber volume on our remaining forestland than prior to human intervention. This 35% figure takes into account all the uncut forests and the parks and preserves worldwide. In other words, we have at best only 35% of the volume on average on the remaining 40% of the acreage still forested.

When you multiply 35% by 40%, we arrive at 14% of the original amount of carbon of the earth’s forestlands before human intervention on a significant scale. You can quibble with these percentages a bit one way or another, but the bottom line is that the world’s forests have less than 1/7th of the volume that they did prior to humanity’s ascent 15,000 years ago. The destruction of the Earth’s forests, in this more comprehensive view, is much greater than previously considered.

The why is obvious. We cut more than the forests grew naturally for many centuries and only recently have we begun to match the rate of cut to the rate of growth (what is called Sustainable Forestry). While the decline globally has slowed, it has not been reversed nor does it look like it will be anytime soon unless practices move towards restoration.

Politically, a large movement is taking place to give carbon credits to sustainable forestry outfits. While a good first step, these subsidies will not do much to bring back the lost 6/7ths of the volume. They are written to only guarantee to not lower the volume per acre further. Small increases are being considered as part of the mix, but what is needed is to increase the volume of carbon sequestered per acre in a meaningful way. Most cutover and productive forestland can have its standing timber volume increased by a factor of two to four times while remaining in active production by limiting the rate of cut and focusing on quality lumber production instead of quantity. Yet, this type of restoration is not part of the carbon credit consideration anywhere.

Restoration forestry, the type of forestry practiced by Forever Redwood, aims to not just sustain the relatively low levels of wood (and hence carbon) per acre, but to increase them significantly decade after decade. This means that the carbon sink of these forests—the amount of carbon they absorb from the atmosphere—is much greater than conventionally managed or even sustainably managed forests. For a more in depth explanation of Restoration Forestry, see our beginner’s guide blog post to help guide you through the terminology and process.

The Redwood forest is ground zero for forestry’s response to global cooling. By far, the forests of Northern California’s Redwood region have the greatest carrying capacity for wood volume per acre of any forests on earth. No other forests come close other than the forests of Oregon and Washington State in terms of sheer volume per acre of carbon that can be sequestered.

The coming years will be exciting ones for new innovations and milestones in renewable energy development and environmentally sound, restorative business practices. Forever Redwood, however, has been using such practices since its founding in 1995.

We see more companies are moving to a sustainable model and that is a great first step. We hope more companies will move to a restoration model and not just in forestry, but in many other fields.

We thank you for your support and you can remain confident that as long as I am at the helm of our small devout company, your purchase of Forever Redwood products will continue to be a great choice for your family and for the planet.

Above is the video of Mr. Gore’s powerful 20 minute talk. Please let us know what you think.

Thank you.


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