Forests and Land Use: Undervalued Assets for Global Climate Stabilization
To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the Paris Agreement aims to limit the average global temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Despite existing efforts, we are not on track to meet this target. Stabilizing our climate requires more ambitious action, and forests and agriculture have an important and underappreciated role to play.
Research Summary Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss
For more than 30 years scientists have estimated the emissions of carbon from land-use change by assigning carbon densities of biomass and soil to lands undergoing changes in management, for example the conversion of forest to agriculture. Now, with the ability to measure aboveground carbon density using information from satellites, we can measure changes in land-based carbon without first identifying changes in land use.
Science Update Forests: The Bridge to a Fossil-Free Future
With proper management, forests, particularly those in the tropics, could remove significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, making it much easier to limit global warming to 2ºC. Compared to continuing the present rates of deforestation and forest degradation, a scenario of aggressive management of tropical forests would increase by 10-15 years the time available to eliminate fossil fuel use and still be likely to limit global warming to 2ºC.
Forest Bioenergy Worsens Climate Change
“Forest bioenergy” refers to the burning of wood or wood products to produce electricity or heat. Burning wood releases CO2 into the atmosphere, just as burning fossil fuels does. Forest bioenergy can be used to generate electricity by forming the wood into pellets, which are burned instead of coal. (In fact, burning wood releases about 1.5x as much CO2 as burning coal.) Alternatively, forest bioenergy can be made into liquid fuels. In some cases these fuels are exported before being burned.
Tropical Forests: Conserving Climate and Culture
Climate change due to global CO2 emissions will fundamentally alter tropical forests and agriculture by warming air temperature, altering rainfall regimes, and changing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Tropical deforestation accounts for 10% of global CO2 emissions, warms local land surfaces by decreasing the evaporative cooling that forests provide, and reduces the recycling of water back to the atmosphere, ultimately decreasing rainfall.
Deforestation and Climate Change
Each year, 1 billion tons of carbon are released to the atmosphere from deforestation, forest degradation, and other types of land use, making “deforestation” second only to fossil fuel combustion as the major source of CO2 driving climate change. Commercial and subsistence agriculture, logging and the road building associated with these economic pursuits continue to threaten intact forests in many countries across the tropics, where deforestation rates continue to climb.
Permafrost and Global Climate Change
Carbon emissions from thawing arctic permafrost will become substantial within decades, likely exceeding current emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the United States. This will greatly complicate efforts to keep global warming below 2°C and adds urgency to limiting anthropogenic emissions. Unlike fossil fuel emissions, emissions from thawing permafrost build on themselves, because the warming they cause leads to even greater emissions. For this reason, emissions from permafrost could lead to out-of-control global warming.
Permafrost & Global Climate Change
A one-page infographic that provides the essential information to know.
WHRC Impacts Timeline
This timeline highlights some of the scientific and policy impacts of WHRC.