New Research Shows Why Forests Are Absolutely Essential to Meeting Paris Climate Agreement Goals

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Author: Mike Gaworecki | Published: November 9, 2017 

  • 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.”

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.”

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