This is the second in a three-part series of guest blogs about forests by the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas. You can read Part 1 here. Part 2 (below) was written by Janaki Alavalapati, Professor and Head of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United States.
Role of Forests in Mitigating Climate Change
Forests cover about 30% of the world’s land area. They provide us with food in the form of edible plants, fruits, nuts, berries, insects, and animals. They provide income and livelihoods to people through timber and a variety of non-timber products such as mushrooms and honey. Forests provide fodder and rangeland for millions of households who herd cattle, goats, and sheep. Forests provide herbs and forest products that are used as medicine by millions of households in the world. Forests are the most important living gene banks on earth and provide critical habitat for wildlife including a number of threatened and endangered species. In addition, forests play a key role in maintaining the ecological base for food production by controlling water and wind erosion and by recycling vital nutrients such as nitrogen back into the soil. While citizens have greater awareness of these benefits, the role of forests in mitigating climate change is not well understood.
Forests play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change and reducing global warming. They
store about 45% of terrestrial carbon. As forests grow, they store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their roots, branches, and leaves. As such, the world’s forests store about 2.4 gigatons of carbon per year. However, when forests are cleared and burned, their stored carbon is emitted back into the atmosphere. For example, tropical deforestation alone contributes to about 20% of overall human-caused carbon dioxide emissions per year. So, depending upon how they are managed, forests can act as a carbon storage sink or source of carbon emissions.
Growing forests and keeping forests as forests are only part of the solution to mitigate climate change. The use of sustainably produced and harvested timber in l products can significantly reduce overall societal carbon emissions. They note that assessment of forests in mitigating climate change and global warming must account for:
• Low carbon emissions associated with wood products manufacture,
• Carbon storage in long-lasting wood products such as furniture and books,
• Avoided emissions that result when wood is used in place of energy-intensive materials and products such as concrete and plastic, and
• The efficient use of wood for energy that can be substituted for fossil fuels.
Sustainably managed forests not only increase carbon sequestration and storage benefits but also generate a range of environmental, economic, and social benefits listed in the beginning. As such, managing forests and their carbon is considered a low-cost option of mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Research suggests that the costs of targeted global reductions in GHG emissions can be reduced by up to 40% with the extensive use of forests to sequester and store carbon. This realization has led to the REDD (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation) program of the United Nations and more recently REDD+, which broadens the scope to include sustainable forest management and enhancement of forest carbon. However, issues such as how we measure carbon storage, how we monitor carbon stocks, and verify carbon sequestration pose significant challenges to implement forest carbon projects across the world. Advancements in measurement technologies, remote sensing, and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), for example, are expected to help overcome these challenges. Last but not the least, incentives to control deforestation, establish new forested areas, and displace energy-intensive products with wood products will promote forests potential in mitigating climate change.