From Rubber to Carbon Storage: The Changing Economics of the Amazon

The following is an excerpt from The End of Stationarity: Searching for the New Normal in the Age of Carbon Shock by Mark Schapiro (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016): 


A century ago, if I’d made the long journey to the Brazilian port of Manaus on the Rio Negro, one of the great tributaries of the Amazon River, it would most likely have been in search of rubber. From here, American and European adventurers and schemers ventured into the jungle in search of trees and their sap. Hundreds of millions of dollars flowed through Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s largest state, Amazonas. Today the city still feels improvised, as if its inhabitants were accidentally dropped into the middle of the jungle and told to build.

Manaus is hot, it teems with insects, and red and purple flowers grow through every sidewalk; even subdued, the jungle seems to burst at every turn through the urban surface. It’s a boisterous sprawl of two million people with traffic-jammed boulevards, street vendors hawking sugarcane juices squeezed on the spot, and a port where colorfully painted wooden freighters, loaded with goods and people, jostle with simple canoes in the water. Manaus is the last stand of “civilization”; from here, in every direction, sprawls the Amazon.

In a plaza of gnarled trees and blossoming vines sits the nineteenth-century theater built by the rubber barons to feature their favorite performers from Europe. The Teatro d’Amazonas is a surreal testament to a time when those barons came to the forest to export its riches and, in the process, imported the titans of opera from home to entertain them. Also known as the Manaus Opera House, the theater is a spectacle of absurdist grandeur—an opulent marble palace in the jungle, still with its original tropical hardwood seats and a hundred years of congealed tropical moisture lingering heavily in the air. Above the orchestra seats, fleur-de-lis imprints bear the names of the great European cultural figures of the nineteenth century—Goethe, Verdi, Beethoven, Hugo, and others. Fans of the filmmaker Werner Herzog may remember this as the place where the crazed Fitzcarraldo—in the film of the same name—stopped while on a frenzied quest to build his own opera house in the jungle. Though it now features modern-day performers, the theater seems stuck in time, a time when foreigners came to get a taste of the “high” culture they left behind while the natives toiled on their behalf in the jungle.

A century later, there’s a new generation from Europe and America who have been embarking from Manaus in search of the jungle’s bounty. Only this time many of them are not looking for trees to cut down or for sap to extract; they’re looking instead for what the jungle is—the world’s largest sink of carbon dioxide.

These foreigners are not interested in exporting from the jungle, but rather are seeking to preserve it exactly as it is. They’re hunting for a new commodity—the CO2 embedded in Brazil’s billions of trees. They are seeking a living ecosystem in exchange for the pollution that fossil-fuel-intensive industries send into the atmosphere. The trees here have not been cultivated, like those California cherry groves; they arise out of the churning jumble of nutrients in the soil of the jungle.

Trees are our partners in respiration: They inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, and we, of course, do the opposite. Foresters estimate that roughly half of every tree (the exact figure depends on species, elevation, and other factors) is made up of carbon dioxide—just as we humans are composed significantly of oxygen. The CO2 is embedded in the trunk, the leaves, the bark, the very essence of the tree. When a tree is cut or burned, that CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Equally important is the fact that the very process of clearing or cutting trees involves widespread destruction of the forest ecosystem; half of the CO2 in a forest is in the soil and ground vegetation. In the same way that tilling soil sets loose carbon dioxide long sequestered in the earth, felling trees causes serious collateral damage. The United Nations estimates that deforestation accounts for about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

For a glimpse into the interplay between trees and greenhouse gases, take the wooden desk on which this book is being written. I don’t know where it came from, but it is made from a birch tree, which means it most likely came from the middle latitudes of the United States or Canada, and probably from a second- or third-growth forest, given how few virgin forests are left. The Congressional Research Service has helpfully calculated how much CO2 is sequestered in a growing North American temperate forest, the likely source of wood for my desk and for much bigger things, too, like possibly your house. A twenty-five-year-old American birch forest sequesters about 1,760 pounds of CO2 per acre per year, an average of 2.5 pounds of CO2 per tree. (For a 120-year-old forest, by contrast, the sequestration rates are more than double that, because trees and the surrounding ecosystem had time to grow in complexity and size.)1 The USDA Forest Service estimates that the total amount of carbon stored in American forest ecosystems amounts to about twenty-five years’ worth of the total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. Wherever its precise genesis, then, there’s no dodging the fact that trees felled from the forest are significant contributors to the atmospheric burden of greenhouse gases.

Some of the carbon remains, it must be said, in the deadwood of my desk. Just over half of a tree’s CO2 remains in a piece of wooden furniture after ten years, according to the USDA. Which means my desk is something of a carbon sink, for a while, anyway; that rate declines each year as the wood decays and slowly releases what was once its life-giving CO2, and after a century little more than 0.003 percent of its original CO2 remains.2 In other words, turning a tree into a desk just slows down the release of carbon dioxide, it doesn’t prevent it. Needless to say, the ecosystem my desk supports is hardly that of a living tree—it sustains little more than myself, my computer, and the papers that are sprawled across its top. (This of course would be laughable were it not for the fact that the country’s largest timber company, Sierra Pacific Industries, successfully demanded that the CO2 sequestered in its “wood products” be counted by the state of California as saved carbon when tallying up the company’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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