Feb. 14, 2003 Late last year, Frédéric Achard and colleagues published a controversial article in which they contended that earlier estimates of worldwide tropical deforestation and atmospheric carbon emissions were too high. In the February 14 issue of Science, Philip Fearnside from the National Institute for Amazonian Research in Brazil, and William Laurance from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama argue that the Achard study contains serious flaws rendering its conclusions about greenhouse gases unreliable.
The article in question ("Determination of deforestation rates of the world's humid tropical forests", Science, vol. 297, pages 999-1002), which received extensive press coverage, asserted that only about 0.6 to 1.0 billion tons of greenhouse gases (most carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide) were being produced by the razing and felling of tropical forests each year. This estimate is considerably lower than those of earlier studies, which estimated up to 2.4 billion tons annually.
Fearnside and Laurance list seven serious errors or limitations of the Achard study, which, they say, collectively lead to a major underestimate of greenhouse gas emissions.
Among the errors they identify is that the Achard team failed to include drier tropical forests--which are also being rapidly cleared and burned--in their estimate. Other concerns include underestimating the amount of biomass--and hence the amount of carbon--contained in tropical forests. The study assumes that regenerating forests on abandoned lands will re-absorb large amounts of atmospheric carbon. In fact, such forests are often re-cleared after a few years. The study also fails to consider the effects of important greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which are also produced by deforestation.
Fearnside and Laurance further assert that the effects on global warming of selective logging, habitat fragmentation, and other types of forest degradation are not included in the Achard study. Selective logging, for example, does not cause deforestation per se but produces hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
"When you look at all these factors, you can't help but conclude that their numbers are too small," said Laurance. "They're suggesting that tropical deforestation and degradation accounts for only about a tenth of the global production of greenhouse gases. Personally, I'd argue that their estimate is two to three times too low."
Each year, humans produce seven to eight billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which are considered the major cause of global warming. Most emissions are produced by the burning of fossil fuels and tropical deforestation, but the relative importance of these two sources remains controversial.
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