- It’s widely acknowledged that keeping what’s left of the world’s forests standing is crucial to combating climate change. But a suite of new research published last week shows that forests have an even larger role to play in achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement than was previously thought.
- In order to meet those goals, the global economy will have to be swiftly decarbonized. According to a new report from the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), by taking aggressive action to protect and rehabilitate tropical forests, we could buy ourselves more time to make this transition.
- Deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of global emissions, but removing that source of emissions is only half the value of forests to global climate action. Other research shows that planting trees and rehabilitating degraded forests is just as critical to climate efforts as stopping deforestation, because of how reforestation efforts can enhance forests’ role as a carbon sink.
By now, it’s widely acknowledged that keeping what’s left of the world’s forests standing is crucial to combating climate change. But a suite of new research published last week shows that forests have an even larger role to play in achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement than was previously thought.
The research was released on the eve of the annual United Nations climate conference (the twenty-third conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP23), which kicked off in Bonn, Germany on November 6.
The UN’s program for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, known as REDD, was included in the Paris Agreement as a standalone article, signaling its importance to broader efforts by the international community to halt global warming. The Agreement was signed by nearly 200 countries in December 2015 and set a goal of “keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
In order to meet those targets, the global economy will have to be swiftly decarbonized and the use of fossil fuels sharply curtailed, while the use of clean, renewable energy will need to be scaled up just as rapidly. According to a new report from the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), by taking aggressive action to protect and rehabilitate tropical forests, we could buy ourselves more time to make this transition.
“[E]nding tropical forest loss, improving tropical forest management, and restoring 500 million hectares of tropical forests could reduce sufficient emissions to provide 10-15 years of additional time to dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels,” the report states. “The potential is even larger if the role of the entire land use sector is considered.”
Deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of global emissions. But removing that source of emissions is only half the value of forests to global climate action. Restoring degraded forests has come to be recognized as perhaps just as critical to climate efforts as stopping deforestation, because of how reforestation efforts can enhance forests’ role as a carbon sink.
While forests currently remove an estimated 30 percent of manmade carbon emissions from the atmosphere, they could be sequestering far more. If we allow young secondary forests to regrow and improve forest management in addition to stopping deforestation, WHRC notes, “the cumulative size of the forest sink could increase by 100 billion metric tons of carbon by the year 2100 — significantly larger than it is today.” That’s roughly equivalent to the amount of emissions we create in a decade through our use of fossil fuels.
“We cannot meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5 °C without utilizing the potential of forests and agricultural soils to store more carbon,” said Philip Duffy, WHRC’s president and executive director. “This requires avoiding future emissions as well as using these resources to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The relatively small net CO2 emissions from land use—about 10 percent of total human emissions—is the difference between much larger emissions and removals. This masks the great potential of forests and soils to contribute to climate mitigation.”
Ending deforestation and replanting forests just as important as weaning ourselves from fossil fuels
There are actually three distinct activities, besides stopping deforestation, that can boost forests’ role in halting global warming: afforestation, or planting trees on land that was not previously forest; reforestation, in which forests are replanted on land that had been forest in the past; and forest restoration, which involves planting new trees to improve the health of a degraded forest.
Another report, also released last week, by Forest Climate Analytics, looks at large-scale afforestation, reforestation, and restoration efforts in China, India, and South Korea. Through their tree planting efforts, these three countries removed more than 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the past two decades, according to the report, providing “evidence for the scale of carbon removals that are achievable through active interventions centered on tree planting and maintenance.”
“The experience of China — which produces more carbon emissions than any other country — is especially noteworthy, as reforestation programs there not only removed CO2 from the atmosphere and increased forest cover by more than 50 percent, but also provided additional income to rural communities and ensured that forests provide critical ecosystem services that support agricultural productivity,” Michael Wolosin, Forest Climate Analytics’ president and the author of the report, said in a statement.
Yet another piece of research — a working paper co-authored by Martin Herold of Wageningen University in The Netherlands — further underscores the point that forests are just as important to halting global temperature rises as weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. Herold and his colleagues estimate that there is 40 percent more carbon stored in Earth’s forests as there is in all known fossil fuel deposits around the world. In fact, the researchers say, there is five times more carbon currently stored in forests than we can pump into Earth’s atmosphere and still meet the 2°C target.
“Releasing this carbon into the atmosphere through continuing deforestation not only commits us to the worst impacts of climate change, but also results in the loss of a globally important carbon sink,” Herold said in a statement. “People often misunderstand the longevity of forests — sure, individual trees die, but forests naturally grow back. As long as the land use does not change, forests are a permanent fixture of the earth’s carbon sequestering architecture. Protecting the carbon stored in forests is no different than taking action to ensure fossil deposits stay underground.”
One major hurdle to overcome: Funding to keep forests standing is lagging severely behind the financing made available to industries, especially agriculture, that contribute most to deforestation. Total investments aimed at stopping deforestation represent just $2.3 billion of the $167 billion that multilateral institutions and developed countries have committed to climate change mitigation efforts since 2010. That’s less than 1.5 percent of climate mitigation funds, according to a report by Climate Focus. Over that same time period, financing for business-as-usual agricultural practices has been nearly 40 times more abundant than the funds provided for forest protection, per the report.
“As countries work to make good on their commitments under the global climate agreement, we need to look at where we’ve already had success in reducing carbon in the atmosphere by protecting and growing forests,” Forest Climate Analytics’ Wolosin said.
“China’s example shows that we don’t need to wait for a future technological fix for carbon removal. Forests are a natural carbon removal technology—and one that is proven and available immediately to be deployed at a large scale. Without significant leadership from policy makers, this moment of opportunity to realize the full mitigation potential of forests and lands could be lost.”
- Climate Focus. (2017). Progress on the New York Declaration on Forests: Finance for Forests – Goals 8 and 9 Assessment Report. Prepared by Climate Focus in cooperation with the New York Declaration on Forest Assessment Partners with support from the Climate and Land Use Alliance.
- Houghton, R. A., Birdsey, R. A., Nassikas, A., & McGlinchey, D. (2017). Forests and Land Use: Undervalued Assets for Global Climate Stabilization: Why protecting and restoring forests and promoting sustainable agriculture and land use is more important than ever for the future of our planet. Woods Hole Research Center.
- Wolosin, M. (2017). Large-scale Forestation for Climate Mitigation: Lessons from South Korea, China and India. Forest Climate Analytics.
Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001