WWF, has compiled a list of 20 forest regions on five continents which are particularly at risk (2) as they struggle to keep pace with rapidly changing climatic conditions. They range from the vast expanses of boreal forests in high northern latitudes to mangroves which provide storm protection in tropical regions. Impacts are becoming evident in a number of areas. Reptiles and frogs have drastically declined in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. In Alaska, 20 million hectares of forest are suffering from an unprecedented attack by spruce budworms after the recent extraordinary series of warm years.
Global warming is escalating because of increasing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) - the heat-trapping gas mainly released when coal, oil and gas are burned for energy. The seven warmest years since scientists began keeping records almost 150 years ago have all occurred in the past decade. The northern hemisphere summer of 1998 was hotter still.
Most alarming is the threat of forest die-back triggering the release of vast quantities of carbon stored in vegetation and forest soils, adding further to the global warming problem.
"Forests are not the magic sponge for soaking up carbon pollution that some people believe," said Dr Stephan Singer, a forest expert who heads WWF's Climate Change Campaign in Germany. "There is no substitute for industrialised nations making more effort at home to cut their CO2 emissions."
Governments from around 170 countries are preparing for two weeks of negotiations at the main annual session of the U.N. Climate Convention which convenes in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Monday 2 November.
WWF is warning industrialised nations against relying on forests to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. It is one of a number of loopholes in the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement made at last year's Convention session held in Japan. Industrialised nations agreed to make a small cut of 5 per cent in their emissions of global warming gases over the next 15 years. WWF is concerned that the target is too weak to prevent climate change from escalating.
Major CO2 emitters like the United States and Japan want to use the Buenos Aires meeting to win concessions for exploiting the Protocol's loopholes. But if the loopholes are not closed they could render the entire agreement useless by allowing countries to show on paper that they are meeting their targets while in reality their emissions continue to increase at home.
WWF's task over the next two weeks is to persuade governments to adopt the organisation's detailed recommendations for closing the loopholes by 2000. But this is a stop-gap measure. More important for WWF is that industrialised nations seize the start of the next century to begin a permanent downturn in their CO2 emissions and provide a sense of optimism about stopping climate change.
For more information:
Mobile phone contacts for the WWF delegation in Buenos Aires:
Andrew Kerr, Public Affairs Manager, WWF Climate Change Campaign, tel: +54 1 969-7117
Mariana Lomi, (Fundacisn Vida Silvestre Argentina). Spanish-speaking press, tel: +54 1 427-5508
Ulrike Hellmessen, German-speaking press, tel: +54 1 427-5509
Makiko Mizuno, Japanese press, tel: +54 1 429-4011
Michael Ross, North American press, tel: +54 1 427-5510