Reducing Deforestation And 'Digital Media Tree-Wash''

I‘ll be traveling to Copenhagen to cover the last week of the COP15 Climate Summit and report on how the decisions being made there are likely to impact the forestry, paper-making, printing, publishing and IT sectors that the graphic arts depend on.

Copenhagen on My Mind: Reducing Deforestation And "Digital Media Tree-Wash"

I‘ll be traveling to Copenhagen to cover the last week of the COP15 Climate Summit and report on how the decisions being made there are likely to impact the forestry, paper-making, printing, publishing and IT sectors that the graphic arts depend on. One of the most significant issues to be addressed in Copenhagen is protecting and restoring global forest ecosystems.

I hope to hear from all of you who have questions for the leaders convened in Copenhagen. I will do my best to track down the answers. Please send me your questions and follow me on Twitter: @dcarli Use the Hashtag: #COP15.

Most people will tell you that they care about saving our forests, but they tend to be uninformed or misinformed when it comes to knowing the causes of deforestation or some of the places being affected most significantly by land use change that kills trees, pollutes rivers and contributes to climate change. Until recently the conventional wisdom has been to demonize paper and print media as the major culprit behind “killing trees” and to idealize digital media as “green and groovy” alternative without consideration for the full backstory or life cycle footprint of either.

Pixels Don’t Grow on Trees

Paper and print media supply chains are far from being sustainable, but may be far less of a threat to forests than the “Tree-Wash” claims about how digital media saves trees or how pixels are greener than pages. “Tree-Wash” is my term for a special class of “green-wash” making false, misleading or unsupported marketing claims that ignore the causes of deforestation associated with digital media, or that fail to identify the actual trees and forests allegedly being saved or planted.

The Copenhagen Climate Summit is likely to play a major role in changing the status quo with regard to foot-printing forests, identifying trees and the calculating the climate impacts of coal-powered IT. From Dec. 7 to Dec. 18 representatives of 191 nations and at least 65 world leaders will attend the United Nations “COP15” Climate Summit in Copenhagen to seek agreement on a new global treaty to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

Are You Seeing REDD yet?

Deforestation and the sustainable management of the world’s forests are serious issues that should be top of mind given the world’s focus on climate change. Trees sequester carbon equal to half of their dry weight, and scientists estimate that as much 20 percent of total emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted due to deforestation, land use change and forest degradation. For that reason, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is a major issue that will be addressed in Copenhagen.

Sustainable forestry will play an increasingly important role in supporting the literacy and sanitary existence of the world’s growing population. In addition to providing millions of jobs and providing the wood fiber used to produce over 350 million tons of paper per year, the world’s forests also serve as the planet’s “lungs” by converting or “sequestering” atmospheric carbon dioxide into woody biomass and providing other important environmental services. In addition, sustainably harvested forest biomass will increasingly be employed by a new generation of integrated bio-refineries to replace fossil fuel energy and petrochemical feed-stocks.

According to some reports just one day’s deforestation is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of eight million people flying to New York; in order to address such a serious challenge and provide a basis to monitoring the reduction of deforestation and forest degradation, an impressive array of Geo-locative and remote sensing capabilities are being developed to map the world’s forests and identify the location of individual trees with startling precision.

For example, as part of the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and its member countries and partners is undertaking a global remote sensing survey of forests covering the whole land surface of the Earth. FAO is also providing technical support for national forest assessments and the establishment of national forest monitoring systems. See:

In addition to remote sensing sites, there are exciting new “crowdsourced” mashup projects like The Geo-Wiki Project, in which a global network of volunteers review hotspot maps of global land, cover disagreement and determine, based on what they actually see in Google Earth and their local knowledge, if the land cover maps are correct or incorrect. Their input is recorded in a database, along with uploaded photos, to create new and improved hybrid global land cover maps and augmented reality applications.

See: Another example is the UNEP Billion Tree Campaign that uses mobile phone or iPod input to locate GPS coordinates of trees planted by school children around the world. See: UNEP.

Do You See the Forest or the Trees?

Such remote sensing of forest biomass and Geo-locative tagging of trees will become increasingly important as the exemption of carbon dioxide emissions from bio-energy use will only be appropriate if there is a system that also counts emissions from deforesting land and land use activities that degrade forest ecologies. In that way, if biomass for energy use results in deforestation, emissions are counted as land use emissions equivalent to fossil fuel emissions. However, these new remote sensing and Geo-locative augmented reality applications will also be making it possible to stem the tsunami of “Go Digital, Save Trees” Tree-Wash marketing claims that many marketers of e-billing, e-books and digital media have been flooding the market with.

One of the little known but significant causes of deforestation in the United States related to digital media is the practice of "Mountain Top Removal" (MTR) employed to mine the coal that is used to generate electricity in the US. In 2008 over 41 million tons of coal were extracted by means of Mountain Top Removal in West Virginia. Coal provides the majority of electric power in 32 states, and 99 percent of the electricity generated in West Virginia comes from coal. (A website created by the Alliance for Appalachia provides an interactive tool that shows the connections between the energy generated in your community to coal that comes from Mountain Top removal in West Virginia.)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that by 2013 an area the size of Delaware will have been deforested to extract coal. In addition to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the energy consumed by digital media’s IT infrastructure, the deforestation, toxic air pollution and water pollution impacts associated with coal mining, coal combustion and coal waste need to be considered before making claims about digital media being greener than print or saving trees.

Truth in Augmented Reality

Deforestation, illegal logging and land-use changes that result in greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental damage are serious matters that billions of people care about. With today’s advanced remote sensing and geo-location capabilities consumers have every reason to expect marketers making claims about their offerings saving trees, or resulting in the planting of trees, to identify the trees in question and account for the life cycle impacts associated with their products. Even if the FTC does not yet prosecute such cases, that would not preclude a competitor from calling on the National Advertising Review Council to review the truthfulness and accuracy of a green marketing claim.

As we enter the “Post Madoff” trust-but-verify age of social-media powered transparency and climate awareness, it is becoming more possible and important than ever to monitor the green message content and supply chain impacts of advertising. Pixels may not grow on trees, but it is increasingly likely that remote sensing and augmented reality pixels can and will be used to hold marketers responsible for the carbon footprint of their media supply chains and the truthfulness and accuracy of advertising claims they make about saving or planting trees.