New Study: Climate Change Best Mitigated by Natural Forests

What constitutes a forest? If you care about climate change, the answer is very important. A recent study from researchers at the University of Oklahoma shows that if the goal is to sequester carbon using forests, then native vegetation does best.

Forests have played an increasingly important role in climate change negotiations. The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program received a major boost of support at Copenhagen this past December. It was one of the only things all parties could agree as on as being part of a future climate change treaty. The goal of REDD is to save forests in developing counties with the goal of reducing carbon emissions. The carbon sequestered can then be traded as credits on carbon markets like the one in place in the European Union.

The desire to get REDD off the ground is so great that Norway is hosting the Oslo Climate and Forest Conference this week. The goal is to establish an interim partnership arrangement for countries interested in using the REDD mechanism as no global treaty is currently in place.

However, international definitions of what exactly constitutes a forest are not set in stone. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defines forests as any area with greater than 10% of crown cover. While this is great for including degraded forests that have been partially logged or damaged by natural causes, it doesn’t exactly provide incentives to keep trees standing in forests with greater crown cover.

There have also been other proposals to define forests. The International Union for the Conservation for Nature wants forests to be defined by six different types of land use. Another international proposal seeks to define forests by the height of the vegetation being a certain threshold. Then there’s my personal favorite, the forests as “sticks of carbon” where forests are defined by the amount of carbon stored per hectare.

None of these definitions takes into account what plants actual constitute a forest. They also neglect to include the benefits might be to local communities who rely on forests for a variety of ecosystem services beyond climate change mitigation. Finally, they fail to account for not only how much carbon is stored but also how much carbon will continue to be sequestered each year.

Stick of carbon really is a terrible way to conceptualize what forests really are. This leaves the door open to classify plantations or monocultures as forests simply because they can suck up carbon. It leaves local communities out in the cold and denies what it means to truly be a forest. As naturalist John Muir once wrote “Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe.” Take a visit to the rainforest in Panama or the old growth forests of the Cascades and it should become apparent forests offer more than the ability to confront climate change.

It’s true that no forest is untouched by humans. However, defining a monoculture as a forest destroys the essence of a forest. Unfortunately, this essence is tough to define in an international treaty.

However, in a moment of happy convergence, the study from the University of Oklahoma shows that the best way to use forests to sequester carbon and avert climate change is to let nature take its course. Not only did natural forests sequester more carbon, they also had myriad other benefits including more nutrient-rich soil and had more biomass above and below ground.

Rather than focusing on ways to include forest plantations under REDD, we should be looking to more natural ways to mitigate climate change to compliment the technological solutions as well. These solutions could also have lasting local benefits as well.

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