Are We Toast?

Or, Do We Have The Time And Wisdom To Protect Our Planet's Climate?

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A Woodcutter

Deep within the Brazilian Amazon Forest, we find the find a single, isolated small hut surrounded by smoking mounds constructed of brick and earth. The hut belongs to a poor woodcutter and the charcoal that he is making in his brick ovens is the sole support for his family. Our woodcutter, and thousands like him, account for about 20% of the 1400km2 (540sq. mi.) of the Amazon Forest that is deforested every month. The charcoal that they produce is eventually shipped down the Amazon and used in steel production, primarily in the United States and China.

The woodcutter is following a way of life, and using technology, that is little changed from the Bronze Age, 6,000 years ago. He may have a rifle, and perhaps even a chainsaw, but otherwise he leads a semi-nomadic life, moving his hut and rebuilding his kilns as the distance from his clearing becomes too great to drag the felled trees. The kilns basically distill the wood into pure carbon by maintaining heat in the nearly oxygen-free environment, driving off the moisture and volatile organic compounds. The exported charcoal will be combined with iron ore, and heated in high temperature furnaces to produce carbon steel, which is used in the construction of our buildings, and to make our cars and products.

The charcoal producers are not the only ones clearing the Amazon forests, in fact timber harvesting for furniture and plywood is much larger, and the greatest amount of forest clearing is for agriculture, primarily soybeans beans, beef, and even corn to meet the US demand for ethanol production.

In December of 2007 over 10,000 participants, including representative of over 180 nations met at the UN Climate Change Conference 2007 met in Bali, Indonesia. The two-week meeting, which was extraordinary contentious, which failed to make satisfactory progress in the scheduled time went into extra sessions and was nearly scuttled by the US Representative, Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky at the last minute. When Dr. Dobriansky reversed her position at the last minute the conference rapidly accepted, by consensus, a roadmap for future actions, and highlighted immediate items for action, including the reduction of tropical forest deforestation.

Consequently, in January 2008 the Brazilian government intensified its efforts to reduce illegal forest clearing in the Amazon, including a program of discouraging small woodcutters by destroying their kilns.

The preservation of tropical forests is indeed a laudable goal, however the plight of the small woodcutters and charcoal-makers illustrates a number of dilemmas for the formation of global climate change policy. The small woodcutters have existed in harmony with the forests for centuries, with new growth rapidly regenerating the harvested trees. A bulldozer can destroy more forest in minutes than a woodcutter can in a lifetime, and the land cleared bulldozer for agriculture does not return to CO2 absorbing forest, but to the contrary requires a constant energy input to maintain in a manner suitable for agriculture.

Citizens of developed nations have been the beneficiaries of the woodcutters labor. Does not our demand for his product mean that we share in the responsibility for the forest harvesting? Do we not have a moral obligation to the woodcutter? The wood cutter aspirations probably do not extend beyond feeding himself and his family. He knows nothing of the material goods that we consider essential, his only knowledge of our civilization resulting from occasional contact with charcoal traders. Do we have a moral right to tell the woodcutter that he cannot support his family, by the means that his forefathers have for centuries, so that we can continue our current lifestyle?

The charcoal produced by the Brazilian woodcutters is primarily mixed with Iron ore, as a chemical reductant, which when combined with heat produces high carbon steel. The basic process has been in existence for over 2000 years, probably originating in Africa. The value of the charcoal is that it is a source of pure carbon, free of impurities. Modern steel making also uses "coke" which is produced by from coal, using the same fundamental process as the production of charcoal from wood. However, coke contains a number of impurities, such as sulphur, that can result in a lower grade of steel. In 2000 the American Iron and Steel Institute estimated that the use of wood charcoal as both an energy source and reductant could reduce greenhouse gases from steel production by 90% or more. The concept is currently being pursued in Europe, Great Briton and Australia among other countries. It is indeed ironic that the Brazilian woodcutters by be contributing to "sustainable" steel production as the carbon released during the process will be balanced by absorption of carbon by regrowth of the forest.

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