Forests are a cornerstone of the global effort to get climate change under control, but drought and a variety of unsustainable practices are putting them at risk, according to a collection of research papers summarized this week by Climate News Network.
“Land management plans submitted by nations that pledged in Paris in 2015 to contain global warming to 2°C or less could contribute 25% of the total promised reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming,” CNNet reports, citing a paper in the journal Nature Climate Change produced by researchers from the UK, the European Commission, Italy, and the Netherlands. But “other studies suggest that any pledges may be difficult to keep.”
The research team affirmed that forests “shelter natural biodiversity, recycle rainfall, and offer protection from flooding and erosion. They also soak up carbon and deliver resources that should be sustainable,” writes correspondent Tim Radford.
But another study in the journal Ecology Letters concludes that more frequent, severe droughts are already putting forests at risk.
“A thirsty tree growing in a tropical forest and one in a temperate forest, such as those we find in Europe, will have largely the same response to drought and will inevitably suffer as a result of rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns,” said study co-author Sarah Greenwood of Scotland’s University of Stirling.
“As the temperature of the planet continues to climb, mass tree mortality will hit more forests than ever before,” adds co-author Alistair Jump. “Forests store a substantial amount of the world’s carbon and increased tree death will only propel future global warming.”
A third study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, concludes that even “sustainable” forest harvesting may not actually be sustainable. “Ecologists and economists have repeatedly argued that standing, natural wild forests are over the long term of greater economic benefit to both local communities and the rest of the world than as pasture or plantation,” Radford writes. But in a study of 233 villages in tropical Africa, Asia, and South America between 2005 and 2010, 209 of the communities “reported that at least one forest resource had declined. There were reports of reductions in timber, firewood, food, medication, and animal feed.”
On Climate Home, meanwhile, campaigners Julia Christian and Hannah Mowat of Brussels- and UK-based Fern point to regeneration of degraded forest landscapes as an opportunity to draw 330 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere through the end of the century.
“This is our best, most realistic bet for the negative emissions we need,” they write. But “forest restoration done the wrong way could put lives in danger. Forest conservation projects have a well-documented history of displacing Indigenous communities from the land they need to survive.”
Christian and Mowat note that regeneration, combined with a reforestation program one-third the size of what would be required under some of the wackier biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) schemes, “would put the world on track to achieve the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris agreement. In short, we need to ‘make forests healthy again.’”
But instead, the search for negative emissions is leading too many researchers—driven by all the 2°C pathways developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—down the path of CCS and BECCS.
“As climate scientist Kevin Anderson pointed out after 2015’s Paris conference, CCS leaves us gambling our future on a ‘carbon-sucking fairy godmother,’” Christian and Mowat write. “So far, the deployment of this technology has been very limited, and it is very unlikely to be rolled out quickly enough to provide the negative emissions we need.”
BECCS “is even more fantastical,” they add: CCS “essentially doesn’t exist.” BECCS makes too many assumptions about whether forests will be replanted, and wrongly equates “more biodiverse woodlands with monoculture plantations”. And the accounting for carbon stored and released—over time, and across geographies—is all wrong.
“You could cut down the Amazon, turn it into a parking lot, ship the trees to Europe to replace coal, and Europe would claim a reduction in emissions,” noted Tim Searchinger of Princeton University.