The future is in the forest

Every tree can store carbon, from the measliest birch to the mightiest redwood. Trees gorge on the pollutants Carbon dioxide and Carbon monoxide through photosynthesis. They distribute their carb rich diet into their leaves, roots, branches and trunks. Long-lived trees can lock away carbon for hundreds of years, and it is possible that a forest might act as a carbon sink of such magnitude as to combat anthropogenic climate change. The Amazon Basin is home to one such forest, storing around 1 trillion kg of carbon in living biomass and soils. Brazil owns most of the Amazon, along with 1/3 of the worlds tropical forest. It seemed only fitting then that some of Brazil’s most prominent sylvan stewards should open the first forest-themed discussion on Wednesday of week 1.

They began with the good news: from 2005-2015, deforestation in the country has been reduced by 80%, avoiding 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Setting an immense precedent of power for other forest-dominated countries. However, there are other threats to this carbon sink - mega forest fires, which are often ignited by illegal loggers and sometimes linked to increasing drought conditions, can result in the release of a huge amount of carbon back into the atmosphere. Forest conservation is therefore, often a battle at the grassroots level and can also be dangerous to those involved: roving mercenaries and illegitimate loggers destroy government forestry facilities and 10 to 20 local community representatives are killed each year.

Global deforestation rates have gone up by 51% since 2015, with most of the responsibility pinned on forest-dominated countries such as Brazil and Paraguay. These countries have made significant efforts to sequester carbon through monoculture plantings. Rows upon rows of rapacious eucalypts meet reforestation targets at the expense of biodiversity, social responsibility and climate resilience. Large-scale geoengineering solutions can disregard ecological nuances due to the simplistic definitions of forests. Forests are not just carbon sinks and to think that they are is to actively reduce their resilience to climate change, as well as their ability to act as future carbon sinks. Discussions at COP23 have laid out multiple community-level strategies to alleviate these issues, and measurements of biodiversity, food security and resilience can be integrated into carbon reduction strategies, however, after two weeks of discussion it is still unclear how these small projects can be translated into large-scale policies.

REDD+ (United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) was launched in 2008 with the goal of reducing carbon emissions through sustainable forest management. Through its two tactical branches for combatting climate change, it has dominated COP discussions on forest management. Firstly, market based approaches to carbon sequestration and trading could make forest conservation a more economical land-use option than ranching and logging. Countries keep their forests, earn carbon credits then sell the credits on to polluters. This program has immense potential but requires cross-country cooperation and initial market incentives. Secondly, community-level forest management projects aim to properly value the multiplicity of forest resources, such as food and medicines. Projects have been successfully applied in many tropical regions including Mexico, Brazil, Congo, and COP host Fiji. The communities are taught how to do a proper inventory of their forest resources, measure populations against documented sustainability science and then find the best markets for their sustainable products. However, not all of these projects run smoothly, for example the Women’s Solidarity for Human Rights group argue that poor implementation in Indonesia has led to additional burdens on women.

The forest knows much but tells few. Hundreds of biogeochemical processes converge in the forest, spiraling out over multiple spatial and temporal scales. Presenting a tangled conceptual canopy of theoretical vines and hypothetical branches, a veritable jungle of research uncertainty. The future of the forest sink is equally ambiguous. Panelists at COP speak with crystal-clear authority, while behind the scenes scientists actively debate the nature of forest past, present and future. For example, Amazonian carbon sink estimates are built on the assumption that old-growth forests exist in a state of equilibrium, where carbon enters and leaves the system at the same rate: a ‘Daoist paradise’ where tree death and destruction are balanced alongside new growth. As evidence of extensive historic deforestation mounts, assumptions about natural equilibria need re-examining.

Overall, the discussions at COP23 have been balanced, detailed and practical. Standing forests are becoming increasingly more valuable than logged ones. People of all walks of life, including scientists, politicians, and indigenous leaders from all over the world, have come to COP on behalf of the forest. As a result, I’m left with a feeling of pride for my leafy cohort. The trail ahead is bumpy and obstructed by felled logs, but there is reason for optimism and this is truly a challenge worthy of great forest scientists.