Advancing a new strategy to curb global climate change, two Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) scientists say that better management of tropical forests could stabilize or even reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and serve as a bridge to a world powered by renewable energy.
In commentary appearing in the upcoming issue of Nature Climate Change, Richard A. Houghton and Alexander Nassikas of WHRC, along with Brett Byers of Million Acre Pledge, write that restoration of tropical forests would make it easier to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 2oC.
Most strategies for meeting the 2o goal rely on immediate and severe reductions in fossil fuel use, which would be very difficult to achieve. The authors show that if tropical deforestation were not only stopped but reversed, enough CO2 would be removed from the atmosphere to stabilize concentration at current levels while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Russell A. Mittermeier, executive vice-chair of Conservation International, praised Houghton and Nassikas’s approach, saying that “this new paper indicates that tropical forest conservation could represent as much as 50 percent of the solution to climate change, and is truly ground-breaking and potentially game-changing just before COP21,” the United Nations Conference on Climate Change which begins in Paris on November 30. The conference will bring together representatives from countries around the world in an effort to achieve agreement on climate strategies, including those dealing with the clearing and burning of tropical forests.
The WHRC scientists emphasize that forest restoration is not a substitute for reducing fossil fuel use. Tropical land management, they say, can work only in tandem with the elimination of fossil fuel combustion. While not a complete solution, reforestation can be the bridge to a world with 100 percent renewable energy from sources like the wind and sun.
They also concede that their proposed climate strategies face significant political and economic challenges, notably competition for use of land, especially from agriculture.
But they conclude that stopping deforestation and forest degradation could reduce emissions more than commonly thought, while allowing forests to continue growing would maintain the current carbon sinks in these forests, which play a critical role in soaking up greenhouse gas emissions.
Houghton and his colleagues estimate that 1 billion tons of carbon emissions could be eliminated if tropical deforestation were stopped. Another one to three billion tons of carbon emissions are being sequestered today and that would continue if young tropical forests were allowed to mature. In addition, one billion tons of carbon could be removed from the atmosphere if forest areas were expanded by two million square miles, roughly half the area of the United States.
Taken together, these three management strategies could neutralize fossil fuel emissions if those emissions were to decline rapidly, the WHRC authors write.
“Projected global emissions of carbon dioxide from 2015 to 2050 show a greater than 50 percent chance of exceeding the 2oC target, and even 2oC may be too much, Nassikas said. “We need a mechanism for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and trees can do that.”
WHRC is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the globe.