. Do not fault the trees! Protecting forests remains the most effective method for preserving the planet.
There is growing doubt about the effectiveness of forests as a solution to climate change, despite their long-standing reputation. Some forests actually release large amounts of carbon, and the financing systems in place to support them have encountered difficulties. However, it is vital that we protect existing forests, restore damaged ones, and develop a simpler method of funding them instead of relying on carbon offset initiatives.
In 2021, a research conducted by Brazilian researchers determined that the Amazon rainforest was releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it was absorbing. The once-known carbon sink now appeared to be a source of emissions. This finding echoed a previous 2019 study on Canadian forests, which revealed that they had been emitting more carbon than absorbing since 2001.
This year, as wildfires covered the skies in eastern North America, a writer for The New York Times speculated that the trees could be intentionally causing this, “taking a stand for the opposing side”.
Forests absorb and emit carbon every day. During photosynthesis, they soak it up from the air and use it to make leaves, branches, fruit and other plant parts. The solid carbon is released back into the atmosphere when it burns or decomposes. Carbon is always coming and going; the important number to watch is the net change.
Forests damaged by logging, roads or by the climate crisis itself have become more prone to fire and may grow slower than in the past. They’re absorbing CO2
Although not as much as what is being released, forests worldwide are still adding a significantly larger amount of carbon than they are losing. Even if forests have to choose a side, they are still on our side.
One obstacle to the positive image of forests is the carbon-offset markets that have been established to fund the preservation and planting of trees. These markets involve transactions between companies that choose to offset their greenhouse gas emissions by providing funds for forest conservation or regrowth. However, recent studies have revealed that these efforts often do not deliver the expected climate benefits and can create conflicts within communities.
The New York Times article about risky trees combined the failures of markets with the supposed failure of forests to store carbon. While this is incorrect, it is understandable. In a press release from November, Verra, the top company for certifying carbon transactions, stated that “Carbon markets are the most effective and accessible means of protecting forests.”
Reworded: If this statement were accurate, there would be a limited number of forests remaining. However, in reality, Brazil experienced a significant decrease in deforestation during the early 2000s. This was achieved through the establishment of 24 million hectares (59.3 million acres) of protected areas, many of which were designed to support sustainable forest economies rather than displacing communities. Additionally, there was a significant expansion of Indigenous lands in the previous decade, strict law enforcement measures, and targeted incentives such as credit restrictions. It is important to note that none of these efforts were funded by voluntary carbon projects.
Forests are life-giving allies in the climate fight, and we know how to support them. By far the most cost-effective and environmentally beneficial thing we can do is preserve the intact forests that still blanket large areas, especially in the tropics and the boreal zone.
The tropics contain the most above-ground carbon, while the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and Russia hold the largest stores of carbon in deep forest soils.
As a secondary goal, we must focus on restoring forests. Approximately half of the world’s forests have been destroyed, and 80% of the remaining ones have been impacted by human development. According to a recent study in Nature, regenerating forests could potentially remove 226 billion tonnes of carbon from the air. This is equivalent to 23 years’ worth of global carbon emissions based on 2022 levels.
It is likely an exaggerated figure, not limited by finances or the challenges of persuading landowners to plant trees. However, it has been observed that the current climate crisis is hindering the regrowth of Amazon forests to their former lush state. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of opportunity and a pressing necessity to not only halt deforestation but also engage in reforestation efforts.
Our recommended method for financing this is a combination of conventional government funding and significant agreements for carbon finance, such as the Amazon Fund created by Brazil and Norway in 2008. Other agreements are currently being negotiated for entire nations and states to decrease deforestation, using the jurisdictional approach which allows for greater impact and potential solutions to issues of measurement and fairness in voluntary carbon projects.
Unfortunately, despite Brazil’s plans to implement a domestic cap-and-trade system for carbon, it will not include measures to address deforestation. Instead, on December 1st, Brazil announced a new Tropical Forests Forever fund that will reward or penalize countries based on their preservation or deforestation efforts, rather than their carbon levels.
I appreciate this simplicity, as well as the acknowledgement that forests are interconnected ecosystems with ties to human societies, serving a greater purpose than just maintaining the carbon balance.
John W Reid is a co-author of the book “Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet” and also founded the Conservation Strategy Fund. Paulo Moutinho is one of the founders and a senior researcher at the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon.