CLIMATE CHANGE:  Forests, the Great Green Hope?

CLIMATE CHANGE: Forests, the Great Green Hope?

 3 December 2007

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Brooklin, Canada  — Expanding European forests absorbed 126 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from 1990 to 2005 — equivalent to 11 percent of European Union emissions from human activities — while a U.N. target to plant one billion trees mainly in Africa has been surpassed.

“Forests reduced carbon dioxide more than twice the amount of Europe’s renewable energy programmes,” said Pekka Kauppi, who led the University of Helsinki study, published in the British journal Energy Policy on Nov. 29.

Better conservation, migration to cities, and conversion of surplus farmland are the reasons behind the growing and expanding forests, which are mainly in Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Finland Kauppi, told IPS. The study is based on forestry statistics provided by governments and that were not independently verified.

The resulting “surprisingly high carbon dioxide removal” may be the major factor in Europe achieving its ambitious target of 20 percent reductions in greenhouse targets by 2020, Kauppi said.

“On a global scale, there is hope for the future if we stop deforestation and expand forests,” he added.

For that reason, carbon credits should be given to standing forests, which would offer countries and forest owners additional financial incentives for conservation, he said.

However, there is intense disagreement on this issue.

“Forests are a band-aid,” said Mike Flannigan, a research scientists at the Canadian Forest Service. “Eventually, forests die, releasing all that stored carbon into the atmosphere.”

“Forests are carbon-neutral over the long term,” Flannigan told IPS.

Growing forests can be “carbon sinks”, soaking up additional carbon from the atmosphere for 60 or more years until they reach maturity. But no one knows how long a tree planted today will live. Weather, disease, fires and other factors can shorten the life of any tree.

Illustrating the complex factors involved, one day after Kauppi’s study was released, researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands reported that a drop in atmospheric nitrogen deposition will slow down forest growth, resulting in 27 percent less carbon sequestration (removal) than current levels. Pollution control measures are reducing nitrogen emissions to improve air quality. Trees need nitrogen and carbon to grow.

Canada’s forests have become enormous sources of CO2, mainly due to the rapid spread of an insect pest called the mountain pine beetle and record-breaking fires in recent years. Both the fires and the beetle infestation appear to be consequences of climate change itself, warming and drying forests in western Canada.

“Higher surface temperatures dramatically increase evaporation rates, leaving forests tinder dry,” Flannigan said.

Canada is now losing several million hectares every year to fire, as is Russia and to a lesser extent Alaska. The same mechanism is behind Australia’s major increase in brush fires, according to research published in 2006 in the U.S. journal Global and Planetary Change.

Forests and their peat soils in the remote Boreal region hold about one-third of Earth’s stored carbon and are the ticking “carbon bomb”. Peatlands have been absorbing CO2 for thousands of years and if they dry out and substantial areas begin to burn, cataclysmic climate change is virtually guaranteed.

As global temperatures rise, peatlands will dry out, making it imperative to reduce CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, Flannigan said.

“Forests as carbon sinks is a distraction from the real problem of cutting emissions,” he noted.

Forests should be protected and replanted for their ability to clean and store water, generate oxygen, cool cities and provide habitat and biodiversity, he said.

Fortunately, those benefits accrue no matter why trees are planted. And the world has at least a billion new trees thanks to the U.N.-sponsored Billion Tree Campaign. Launched only a year ago, it has led to huge forestry projects in Ethiopia and Mexico, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) reported last week.

Ethiopia appeared to be the runaway leader, with 700 million trees planted in a national reforestation drive. Only three percent of Ethiopia is now forested, down from 40 percent centuries ago. Guatemala, China and Spain will shortly announce that several million more trees have been planted. And Indonesia was expected to plant almost 80 million trees in the run-up to the high-level Bali climate conference, which opened Monday.

UNEP says that half of the trees were planted by private citizens, but acknowledges it does not verify planting pledges.

“I am elated beyond words at the global interest and action that was motivated by the Billion Tree Campaign,” said Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, founder of the Kenyan Green Belt Movement and a chief architect of the campaign.

“I knew we had it within us as a human family to rise up! … Now we must keep the pressure on and continue the good work for the planet,” Maathai said in a statement.

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