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How forest protection is integral to tackling climate change

According to a new Nature study, protecting forests globally could potentially capture an additional 226 gigatons of planet-warming carbon, equivalent to about a third of the amount that humans have released since the beginning of the Industrial Era.

 If you weren’t already aware, forests play a critical role in the survival of humanity, acting as natural shields that safeguard us from our own inherently destructive impact on the environment.

Hugely effective agents in easing global heating, these green spaces are one of our greatest allies against the climate crisis, soaking up the massive amounts of heat-trapping emissions we can’t seem to stop pumping into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, amid unceasing deforestation for large-scale food production, the expansion of cities, illegal logging, resource extraction, and more frequent wildfires caused by rising temperatures (among numerous other drivers), over 420 million hectares of forest have been lost since 1990.

Every year, in fact, we destroy 10 million hectares of forest, amounting to an annual loss of forest areas equal to the size of Portugal.

Global forest loss increased in 2020

Hoping to remind us of the increasing urgency we face to conserve and restore the Earth’s carbon sinks so as to avoid the life-threatening repercussions that the ecological emergency is set to bring about, more than 200 scientists and researchers have compiled their findings for a new study published in the journal Nature.

As it stipulates, protecting forests could potentially capture an additional 226 gigatons of planet-warming carbon, which is equivalent to about a third of the amount that humans have released since the beginning of the Industrial Era.

By allowing existing trees to grow old in healthy ecosystems and restoring degraded areas, the extra-storage capacity would be substantial, yet this cannot be achieved unless we stop relying so heavily  on fossil fuels.

‘If we continue emitting carbon, as we’ve done to date, then droughts and fires and other extreme events will continue to threaten the scale of the global forest system, further limiting its potential to contribute,’ says Thomas Crowther, the study’s senior author and a professor of ecology at ETH Zurich.

How Do Trees Affect Climate Change? | Time

Leveraging vast troves of data collected by satellites and on the ground, the study also asserts that 61 per cent of the additional carbon storage would come from protecting existing forests while the other 39 per cent would come from growing trees outside of urban agricultural areas in regions with low human footprints.

This clarification is in an effort to address the major caveats – including where we’d get our timber, rubber, and palm oil from, whether forests would be able to store carbon quickly enough, and how much forest would still be lost to intensifying natural disasters – that arose after a similar paper was published in 2019, which wrongly painted trees as a silver bullet for tackling the climate crisis.

‘We are all terrified that this potential of nature gets misused,’ continues Crowther.

‘Nature has such spectacular potential to help us tackle global threats, but it will be devastating if major organisations use nature as an excuse to do more harm to our planet.’

Regardless, the study’s authors believe their findings present a ground-breaking opportunity.

Particularly if restoration is accepted as being a ‘deeply social endeavour’ which involves a community-centric approach to promoting biodiversity that’s guided by locals who choose to work alongside nature to help themselves.

‘We need to redefine what restoration means to many people,’ finishes Crowther.

‘Restoration is not about mass tree plantations to offset carbon emissions. It means directing the flow of wealth towards the millions of local communities, Indigenous populations, and farmers that promote biodiversity across the globe. Only when healthy biodiversity is the preferred choice for local communities will long-term carbon capture become a by-product.’