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Tina Casey headshot

Decarbonization, Reforestation and the Indigenous Voice in the Age of Pandemics

Companies wishing to be part of the climate solution must educate themselves on land conservation, and can start by learning from Indigenous people.
By Tina Casey

The drive for global decarbonization is bringing new industries into new areas, where they can conflict with reforestation goals and other habitat conservation efforts. These points of conflict are also calling more attention to the role of human encroachment in sparking viral outbreaks that can lead to pandemics. Energy companies and other stakeholders that claim to be part of the climate solution need to educate themselves on land conservation in order to help prevent the next pandemic, and they should be learning from the lessons of Indigenous people.

Decarbonization and deforestation

There is no question that the global economy must decarbonize, and quickly. However, fossil energy has already done a vast amount of damage. That makes it difficult to build significant new infrastructure without causing fresh harm.

Some solutions are already at hand. For example, forests don’t need to be razed for new solar arrays. Smaller arrays of solar panels are already commonplace on rooftops, parking lots, and other pre-built infrastructure. Utility-scale fields of solar panels can be located on brownfield sites, abandoned mines and other industrial sites. Co-locating solar panels on working farmland is also emerging as a solution. In addition, the falling cost of energy storage adds new opportunities to expand the use of all these solutions.

The issue is somewhat more complicated for biofuel. Although the use of corn and other food crops for has fallen out of favor, second-generation biofuel crops can pose a deforestation threat.

Fortunately, a third generation of biofuel crops is on the horizon. Growing algae on pre-developed sites is one emerging option. Researchers are also looking into shifting biofuel farming out to sea, in the form of seaweed. However, these solutions will take years to scale up, if ever, and time is running short.

A problematic picture also emerges for renewable or green hydrogen. The main pathway for producing green hydrogen is electrolysis, in which electricity is deployed to split hydrogen gas from water. Depending on the availability of renewable energy and water, electrolysis facilities can be located practically anywhere in the world. That leaves the door open to another deforestation threat.

Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to build green hydrogen hubs on pre-developed sites. To cite one example, the world’s largest electrolysis facility to date is under construction at an existing commercial site at the Port of Pecém, in northeastern Brazil.

Deforestation and pandemics

With so many solutions at hand, there is all the more reason for renewable energy stakeholders to make habitat and forest conservation their top priority, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As reported by an expert panel convened by the international Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), pandemics are becoming ever more frequent due to climate change and habitat loss. Rather than responding to outbreaks after they occur, the global community must focus more attention on pandemic prevention through habitat conservation.

“The underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change,” IBPES explains. “These include land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption."

“Escape from the Pandemic Era requires policy options that foster transformative change towards preventing pandemics,” IBPES concludes.

The rise of the Indigenous voice

The IPBES panel advocates for the “One Health” model of land use planning, which links human, animal and environmental well-being. One Health is a global, collaborative and multidisciplinary effort. In the U.S. it is spearheaded by the Centers for Disease Control.

That is a good start, but the voice of Indigenous people appears to be missing. The CDC describes One Health as a network of health and science professionals collaborating with “law enforcement, policymakers, agriculture, communities, and even pet owners.” 

The failure to highlight the Indigenous voice stands in contrast to action elsewhere in the Americas. In particular, Costa Rica has become a model for Indigenous empowerment in government. The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the resiliency of Costa Rica’s Indigenous population like never before, sparking calls for more government help. However, Levi Sucre Romero, coordinator of the Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques, points out that the relationship is reciprocal.

“In Costa Rica, we Bribri [an Indigenous people living within the country] not only produce world-class cocoa, we have knowledge and a way of life that keeps our forests standing and our environment in ecological harmony,” he wrote last May, when the pandemic was new.

Romero was also the subject of a BBC profile last May, in which he explained how his warnings on deforestation could apply to new energy infrastructure, biofuel farming and any other form of encroachment.

Were unbalancing the habitat of species, were cutting down trees, were planting monocultures, were filling the world with cities and asphalt and were using too many chemicals,” he said. Its a cocktail of bad practices.”

My people have cultural knowledge that says when Sibö, our God, created Earth, he locked up some bad spirits,” he added. These spirits come out when were not respecting nature and living together.”

Learning, listening, and prioritizing conservation

There are some signs that the U.S. is beginning to pay attention, as climate change is already disrupting Indigenous communities in Alaska and elsewhere in the polar North.

One indication of positive change is the participation of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in a U.S. Climate Action Week event organized by the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, a coalition that covers 35 million forest peoples in 18 countries, focused on the Amazon Basin, Brazil, Indonesia and Mesoamerica.

Concurrently, this week Columbia announced its leadership roster for the new Columbia Climate School, the first school of its kind in the U.S. and the first new school for the university in 25 years. Alex Halliday, Director of the Earth Institute, will take on the role of Founding Dean while continuing at the Earth Institute.

It remains to be seen to what extent the Climate School itself places Indigenous voices at the top of the conversation. Meanwhile, another positive step occurred earlier this year, when former U.S. Representative Deb Haaland became the first Native American in U.S. history to join the presidential cabinet, as Secretary of the Interior.

A member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican, Secretary Haaland formerly served on the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, where she advocated for environmentally responsible business practices. She also advocated for environmental justice and climate action while in Congress.

With new leadership at the Interior Department and new networking resources like the Columbia Climate School, energy stakeholders have many new opportunities to engage with Indigenous communities on forest and habitat conservation — and they have no excuse for failing to do so.

Image credit: Frank Ravizza/Pixabay

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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