Forests provide safe, natural way to meet Paris climate goals

By Eleanor Hasenbeck

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This satellite image shows smoke from 2014 forest fires in Borneo. The fires released carbon stored in Borneo’s vulnerable peat soil. Photo by NASA.

BOSTON – If tropical deforestation were a considered a country, it would rank third in global climate emissions. If left to grow, trees could mitigate 24 to 30 percent of total annual carbon emissions.

The management of forests can significantly help or hinder climate goals, said Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Seymour spoke at a panel titled “The Peril and Promise of Forests and Soils for Achieving the Paris Temperature Goals” at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences Annual Meeting in Boston on Feb. 17. During the panel, Seymour detailed how forests factor in meeting the global goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement of limiting the increase of earth’s temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial averages.

The climate agreement has a section dedicated to forests, creating the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program, known as REDD+. It encourages industrialized nations to make payments to developing countries that take successful steps to reduce their rate of deforestation. So far only three industrialized nations have participated (Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany) with mixed reviews of their success.

Forests as an industry can create emissions

Deforestation contributes to emissions in multiple ways. One is in the fossil fuels burned in the act of removing trees. Another is in the uncovered soil left behind after a forest is cleared. Exposed soil is vulnerable to erosion of nutrients, including carbon.

Seymour spoke of Borneo, where, until a 2011 moratorium banned new permits, people clear cut virgin forests and drained peatlands to plant palm for palm oil plantations or left them to dry into scrubland.

When the peat dried out, it burned and released a millennium of accumulated carbon into the atmosphere. Another 2,600 tons of carbon per hectare stored below the ground was exposed to the elements, which will carry it away for decades to come.

Ironically, efforts to replace fossil fuels with biofuels have had a negative impact on carbon emissions and forest health. Seymour said that when the European Union created policies to increase biofuels, companies began using rapeseed oil to produce biodiesel. Soon, palm oil imports also increased, as the food industry sought a replacement for the oils diverted into the energy industry. A greater demand for palm oil caused more clear-cutting and more carbon release in palm oil-producing states like Borneo.

Mitigation potential

All is not lost. Tropical forests offer a solution, in the form of mitigation potential. They’re carbon sinks, meaning that forests they can absorb carbon from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis.

“It’s interesting,” said William Moomaw, a professor emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University, who moderated the panel. “We have the technology that was invented 300 billion years ago that removes about 300 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year ­– forests and soils.”

Seymour said including forests in our solutions to meet climate goals set in the Paris Climate Agreements would save about $100 billion, as opposed to sequestering carbon via other methods.

“Tropical forests are the only safe, natural, large-scale and affordable carbon capture and storage technology that we have,” she said. “And unfortunately, instead of conserving it and investing in it, we’re tossing a hand grenade into it on a daily basis.”

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