D. Schoene and M. Netto
International climate change treaties seek to protect forests against the effects of global climate change while harnessing their unique powers for mitigating it.
Dieter Schoene is Senior Forestry Officer (Forest and Climate Change) in the Forest Conservation Service, FAO Forestry Department, Rome.
Maria Netto is Programme Officer in the Support to Implementation Programme of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Bonn, Germany.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the United Nations or the UNFCCC Secretariat.
When FAO published its first assessment of the world's forest resources in this journal (FAO, 1948), it defined forests as "vegetative associations dominated by trees of any size, capable of producing timber or other forest products or of exerting an influence on the climate or the water regime". Although the greenhouse effect had already been discovered and global warming had been predicted, the originators of this historic definition were probably not intending to refer to a role of forests in mitigating climate change. However, that climate change was eventually to affect forestry had become obvious by 1989, when environment ministers from 68 nations proposed afforestation of 12 million hectares annually in the Noordwijk Ministerial Declaration on Climate Change (IUCC, 1993). Today it is acknowledged that forests can help mitigate climate change, need to be adapted to it and may help humankind in coping with its effects.
This article reviews the links between forests and climate change and their incorporation in international climate change agreements, pinpointing some of the challenges for enhancing the role of forests in mitigating climate change worldwide.
FORESTS CAN HELP MITIGATE CLIMATE CHANGE
Enhancing carbon storage in forests and their products
Planting new forests to absorb excess CO2 in the atmosphere is the option that usually comes to mind first in the context of harnessing forests for curbing climate change. The idea of carbon offset plantings, originally proposed by Dyson (1977), is now being implemented worldwide under the Kyoto Protocol (see articles by Oyhantcabal and Masripatin in this issue) or even without regard to this agreement (see article by Tuttle and Andrasko in this issue). However, beyond planting trees in productive or protective plantations, agroforestry systems or urban forests, an entire palette of silvicultural and management options exists for enhancing carbon uptake and storage in forest ecosystems, such as restoring degraded forests, enrichment plantings, extending rotations in even-aged forests, thinning lightly, favouring species with high sequestration rates, underplanting open forests, and fertilizing or irrigating stands. Immature forests, widespread in Europe, North America and East Asia, act as carbon "sinks" without deliberate human intervention; half of the biomass that they accumulate is carbon.
Outside the forest, wood products can store carbon for decades and even centuries. In industrialized countries, the carbon pool in wood products amounts to 20 to 40 tonnes of carbon per hectare of forest area (Dewar, 1990). Under certain circumstances, managed forests and their products may store more carbon than unmanaged, natural forests (Dewar and Cannell, 1992).
Management options such as light thinning (see stand on the right) can help enhance carbon uptake in forest ecosystems
Conserving stored carbon in forests
If one likens global warming to a fever of the planet, then forests do not only function as a potential remedy; their destruction also contributes to the illness. Deforestation and forest degradation contribute 24 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emissions and 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions combined (IPCC, 2000; Baumert, Herzog and Pershing, 2005); by eliminating the forests' capacity for future carbon absorption, they make the loss all the more serious. In developing countries, most emissions do not originate from smokestacks and tailpipes, but from land-use change. Therefore provision of financial incentives for managing forests more sustainably and reducing their conversion has been proposed by some as an option for lowering emissions.
In addition to reducing deforestation, there are other options for conserving forest carbon, such as reduced-impactlogging (Marsh et al., 1996), managing forest fires (Goldammer, Seibert and Schindele, 1996), replacing even-aged by uneven-aged stands where possible, minimizing carbon loss during timber conversion to forest products (Muladi, 1996), developing alternatives to slash-and-burn activities and reducing rot in trees.
Substituting wood for fossil fuels and high-energy products
Where countries obtain energy from fossil fuels, substituting them with sustainably produced fuelwood to the extent possible should leave a roughly equivalent amount of fossil carbon underground and eliminate corresponding emissions. The use of sustainably produced fuelwood essentially does not produce emissions because carbon released through combustion will be compensated by an equivalent amount absorbed by forest growth. Logging residues may supplement wood harvested from fuelwood plantations. For each cubic metre of growing stock removed as industrial wood from the world's forests, approximately 1 tonne of above-ground biomass remains in the forest as a possible source of bioenergy (FAO, 2006). Each tonne of fuelwood or logging slash biomass could in turn replace about 400 litres of oil and prevent 0.3 tonnes of carbon emissions (Grammel, 1989).
Producing wood products requires less energy (usually from fossil fuel) than producing competing products made from steel or aluminium. On average, every cubic metre of construction timber substituting for steel or aluminium avoids 0.3 tonnes of carbon emissions (Burschel, Kursten and Larsen, 1993).
Immature forests, widespread in Europe, North America and East Asia, act as carbon sinks without deliberate human intervention; half of the biomass that they accumulate is carbon (shown, young white pine and larch in the United States)
C. SCHNEPF/ WWW.FORESTRYIMAGES.ORG/ 1171054
FORESTS MUST BE ADAPTED TO CLIMATE CHANGE
Forests are also possible victims of the planet's figurative fever, and without adaptation they may not fulfil expectations in climate change mitigation. Site and vegetation mapping has shown that forests respond with great sensitivity to even minute differences in temperature and moisture regimes (Schoene, 1983). The warming trend in the global average surface temperature of 0.6oC since 1900 is already resulting in the death of trees in boreal forests (FAO, 2003), and major shifts in the geographic distribution of forest vegetation and some dieback and decline are expected. In most instances, decline will not be caused directly by climate change but by climate-influenced stresses such as fire, pests, diseases and deficiencies of nutrients and water.
On the other hand, some forests may actually benefit from longer growing seasons, warmer temperatures and enhanced growth. Increased CO2 in the ambient air may also improve water use efficiency, as water stress impairs photosynthesis less in carbon-enriched air (Schulin and Bucher-Wallin, 2001).
Proposed adaptive strategies focus on gene management, forest protection, forest regeneration, silvicultural management, operations, management of non-wood resources and park and wilderness management (FAO, 2003).
Outside the forest, wood products can store carbon for decades and even centuries - the cathedral in Paramaribo, Suriname, constructed entirely from wood both inside and out
In developing countries, most emissions do not originate from smokestacks and tailpipes, but from land-use change; preventing deforestation could be an option for lowering emissions
FORESTS MAY HELP HUMAN SOCIETIES ADAPT TO CLIMATE CHANGE
Forests and trees outside forests may help local communities cope with effects of climate change in numerous ways (Robledo and Forner, 2005). Plantations or naturally regenerated trees can protect watersheds against climate-change induced drought, flash floods or landslides, and they can halt or stem desertification. Agroforests and trees in the landscape integrate food and wood production and supply a range of environmental and social services, thus heightening resilience against adverse climatic events. Trees in urban environments sequester relatively small amounts of carbon, but they transpire large quantities of water and reflect more radiation than asphalt surfaces, thus keeping cities cooler (Jo and McPherson, 2001). Plantations of mangroves may protect coastlines against the effects of storm surges and rising sea level.
The fate of forests as a cause, cure and victim of climate change will ultimately affect people: 60 million indigenous forest dwellers depend fully on forests and their products; 1.2 billion people in developing countries obtain food from trees and at least 70 percent depend on forests as their sole source of medicine; and over 2 billion people use mainly wood for cooking and heating (German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2004). How forests fare in climate change will therefore strongly influence human well-being and progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.
The use of sustainably produced fuelwood - e.g. from coppice forests which store carbon while meeting bioenergy needs - leaves fossil fuel underground and eliminates corresponding emissions
Climate change causes forest decline indirectly through climate-influenced stresses such as fire, pests, diseases and deficiencies of nutrients and water
HOW DO THE INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE CHANGE AGREEMENTS ADDRESS FORESTS?
Both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol list general obligations regarding forests that apply to all member countries. They should promote sustainable forest management and promote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement of forests as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases. They should promote afforestation and reforestation as well as renewable energy. They should also consider forests as part of national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions and removals, in technology transfer and in national programmes of adaptation to climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol then assigns different specific requirements relating to forests in developed and developing countries.
Developed countries shall promote sustainable forest management practices, renewable forms of energy, afforestation and reforestation, and they must adopt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change by enhancing greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs. They must assess net greenhouse gas emissions and removals from afforestation, reforestation and deforestation since 1990 that occur during the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2008 to 2012) and incorporate them into their accounting of net greenhouse gas emissions. They must decide by the end of 2006 if they wish to include forest management related greenhouse gas removals or emissions, up to country-specific limits, in their national accounts (FAO, 2003).
Using the mechanism known as Joint Implementation (see article by Lakyda, Buksha and Pasternak in this issue), industrialized countries and countries with economies in transition may jointly carry out greenhouse gas offset projects involving afforestation, reforestation or forest management. Some or all of the greenhouse gas offsets...
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