26 Nov, 2019

Climate Change Presents Opportunity for Armenia to Expand Forest Cover

By Sevag Ajemian

Ever since high school, I have been fascinated by the issue of climate change and what it could mean for our civilization. A couple of years ago, I had the honor of representing Armenia as a delegate to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Germany. This was shortly before the Velvet Revolution. The deputy minister at that time, Erik Grigoryan--who has since become the Minister of Environment--asked me to attend as many meetings as possible and report back on opportunities to finance environmental conservation. I am now convinced that this could be the second pillar of Armenia’s economy in addition to information technology, the field I have worked in for over 20 years in Armenia.

One of the major issues discussed at the UN conference was the Paris Agreement of 2015. Under the Paris Agreement, 195 countries pledged to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. The problem is that while every country hopes to reduce their carbon emissions, it is harder to do in practice. You have to give up or curtail the lifestyle that many people grown accustomed to. So if a country cannot meet its intended obligations, they can offset their emissions by investing in conservation in another country, namely by supporting tree planting or forest conservation.

How are carbon emissions measured? If you drive a fossil fuel burning car, you are releasing carbon. And when you plant a tree, it grows by capturing the very same carbon. That is called carbon sequestration.

Why should we care? Scientists have been saying for years that excessive levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the primary cause of climate change. They say that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide compared to other molecules in the atmosphere is considered to be safe. We passed through that concentration a few years ago, and we are now past 400 parts per million.

Who is responsible for this mess? It turns out the way we live pumps a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. On a per capita basis, people in the US put out 15.6 tons per year (for comparison it is 1.6 tons per capita in Armenia). According to Carbon Brief, the US has historically contributed more to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than any other country. China is number two, and the former Soviet Union is third. India is also rapidly modernizing, and if their citizens adopt the American way of life, we are all going to cook.

So the Paris Agreement is a promise by each country to voluntarily reduce their carbon emissions, and it proposes mechanisms for rich countries to help poor countries avoid the production of these greenhouse gases.

Countries like Japan are looking for ways to reduce their impact on the environment. One way for Japan to reduce its impact is to reduce its own emissions. At the same time, they can offset their unavoidable emissions by investing in forest conservation in other countries. By planting trees and accounting for their absorption of carbon, we have potential capital that can translate into millions of dollars to help counties like Armenia expand their forest cover.

How many trees do we need to plant? ATP planted 250,000 trees last year and six million trees over the past 25 years. That’s a great start, but we can do a lot more. Historically Armenia had tree coverage of 20-30 percent, and now it is down to 10-11 percent.

We have a lot of ground to cover, and it is encouraging that the Pashinyan Administration has a goal to double the forest cover by 2050. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, quite literally. Let’s do it together. Continue your participation in ATP and spread the word about this good work. From small seeds we can assure great growth.

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Sevag Ajemian is a technology leader and self-described environmental sustainability enthusiast. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered at ATP’s 25th anniversary celebration on May 4 in Pasadena.