Ssome have recently questioned whether forests are really the climate solution they have long held. This is because some are emitting more carbon, while the markets built to finance them are stumbling. But there is no path to a livable climate without saving our entire forests, regrowing some, and finding a more straightforward way to pay for them than carbon offset projects.
A 2021 study led by Brazilian scientists established that the Amazon emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. The huge carbon sink seems to have become a smokestack. The paper mirrors a 2019 analysis of Canadian forests, which shows they have been net emitters since 2001.
This year, as wildfires choked the skies across eastern North America, a New York Times columnist went so far as to speculate that the trees might be doing it on purpose, fighting for the other side.
Forests absorb and emit carbon every day. During photosynthesis, they absorb it from the air and use it to make leaves, branches, fruits and other plant parts. Solid carbon is released back into the atmosphere when it burns or decomposes. Carbon always comes and goes; the important number to watch out for is net change.
Forests that have been damaged by logging, roads or the climate crisis itself are becoming more prone to fire and may be slower than before. They absorb CO2, not much like what they released. Globally, however, forests continue to add more carbon than they lose. To the extent that the forest can take sides, it is still ours.
Another challenge to the forest’s reputation is the carbon-offset markets set up to finance tree protection and planting. Most transactions are between companies that voluntarily offset their greenhouse gas emissions by paying to save or regrow forests. Recent reports show that they often fail to produce the promised climate benefits and can sow divisiveness in communities.
A New York Times column on treacherous trees conflates market failures with the forest’s alleged failure to store carbon. That’s wrong, but understandable. In a press release in November, Verra, the main company that certifies carbon deals, said: Carbon markets are the best and most accessible tool we have for protection in the forest.
If that were true, we would have fewer forests. In fact, the largest period of deforestation reduction in history occurred in the early 2000s in Brazil. It operates on 24m hectares (59.3m acres) of newly protected areas (many designed to sustain the forest economy rather than displace people), vast Indigenous lands declared a decade ago, a blitz of law enforcement and targeted incentives such as credit restrictions. Voluntary carbon projects do not pay for it.
Forests are life-giving allies in the climate fight, and we know how to support them. Currently the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly thing we can do is to preserve the intact forests that still cover large areas, especially in the tropics and the boreal zone.
The tropics have the largest above-ground carbon stores, while the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska and Russia have the largest carbon stocks in deep forest soils.
Ain the second priority, we must restore the forest. About half of the globe’s forests have been cleared, with 80% of the rest affected by development. A study published last month in Nature said reforestation would absorb 226bn tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s about 23 years worth of global carbon emissions at 2022 levels.
This is surely an overestimation, not constrained by the budget or the facts of convincing landowners to grow trees. And it is known that, in practice, the climate crisis is already stopping the Amazon forests from growing back to their former comfort. The point remains, however, that there is enough space and an urgent need not only to end deforestation but also to reforest.
To pay for this, our best bet is a mix of traditional public funding and major carbon finance deals like the Amazon Fund, which was launched in Brazil and Norway in 2008. Additional deals are now available at works for entire countries and states to reduce. deforestation, the so-called jurisdictional approach, which can meet the criteria and solve many of the problems of accounting and equity in voluntary carbon projects.
Brazil is now ready to approve a domestic carbon cap-and-trade system, but unfortunately it will not include deforestation. On 1 December, it unveiled a global Tropical Forests Forever fund that will pay/penalize countries based on the area they conserve/deforest, not the amount of carbon they hold.
This simplicity is welcome, as is the recognition that forests are webs of wild biology intertwined with human cultures, which do more than balance the big carbon equation.
John W. Reid co-author Evergreen: Saving the Great Forests to Save the Planet, and is founder and former president of the Conservation Strategy Fund. Paulo Moutinho is a co-founder and senior researcher at Amazon’s Institute for Environmental Research
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