Forests’ Role In Climate Mitigation Bigger Than Previously Thought

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - There are many reasons that forests should be protected, not least for their intrinsic value as some new legislation pieces are starting to recognize. Forests are the habitats of thousands of animal species, and without them, they become critically endangered, as the case of the orangutan in Indonesia painfully illustrates. They help make rain and keep rivers heathy. And, of course, forests are efficient carbon sinks that keep CO2 levels under control.

Regarding the latter, this environmental ‘service’ naturally offered by forests was widely recognized at the Paris Agreement as a critical component of the deal. “But we didn’t go far enough,” says Alec Giffen, a senior advisor for the New England Forestry Foundation, which has published a new study that further bolsters the case for forest protection.

The new paper, published in the Journal of Forestry, claims that New England’s forests (and by extension any other forests) can do a much bigger job in climate mitigation than previously thought. Created as a collaborative effort between The New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), Woods Hole Research Center and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, the authors of the study, called Seeing Forests for More than Carbon in Trees: Incentivizing Actions Beyond Carbon Storage to Mitigate Climate Change, suggest that growing sustainable forests and then using forest products in tall wood buildings, could capture and store ‘globally significant amounts of carbon’. This would help eliminate the carbon pollution that comes from the manufacture of concrete and steel.

“If a portion of New England’s 170,000 private forest landowners can be incentivized to manage their forests for climate mitigation, we can activate powerful approaches to reaching state, regional and national climate mitigation goals,” says Bob Perschel, co-author and NEFF’s executive director.

The study highlights the role wood products could have in mid- to high-rise construction, replacing the less sustainable steel and concrete options. On top of that, growing forests to supply this industry would help sequester more carbon.

“Sequestering carbon has long been recognized as an important way living forests can contribute to reduced greenhouse gas levels,” adds Giffen. “In addition, we can sequester carbon outside of forests by using wood in long-lasting tall structures, and we can manage forests for greater cooling effects and for reduced uses of fossil fuels in other sectors. These opportunities need to be investigated and deployed.”

To make it happen, experts need to get better insight into how forests cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space. This is known as the “albedo effect” and includes the reflection from snow in northern latitudes in winter.

The report also says we need to manage forests to optimize the climate effects of organic compounds they release into the atmosphere. These compounds are known as BVOCs (biogenic volatile organic compounds) and can affect temperatures by directly reflecting sunlight and by causing more cloud formation.

Finally, the study recommends planting or maintaining trees to increase agricultural productivity without further coverage clearing.

“New timber product innovations are long-lasting, more resistant to fires and earthquakes than concrete, steel, and brick buildings, and require relatively little fossil fuel and CO2 emissions in their construction,” says Chadwick Oliver, Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

There is also the water issue as a recent article by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) highlights. The article points out the role trees have on the water cycle and the related climate benefits. Understanding and rewarding these and other effects could in turn create more financial incentives to conserve forests, the authors say.

“If we fail to account for all of the benefits that forests provide, we won’t provide the incentives and support to landowners to encourage management that would reduce climate change,” says Giffen. “Recognizing and rewarding these climate benefits could bolster economic incentives to keep landscapes forested.”

For all of this to happen, policymakers all over the world need to recognize these effects, find ways to compensate landowners for climate-friendly management practices, develop incentives for accelerating wood use in buildings, and support further research on the ‘specifics of the expanded climate services forests can provide’, the authors say.

“Forests are the most widespread terrestrial ecosystem,” co-author and deputy director at NEFF Frank Lowenstein, says. “It is vital that we manage them to the planet’s fullest advantage in the face of the climate crisis.”

Image credit: New England Forestry