Forests Role In Climate Change

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Forests represent a critical resource on Earth because they provide habitat to more than half of the Earth's living species, as well as help slow global warming through the storage and sequestration of carbon. Forests also affect the rainfall regime of an area and are critical sources of food, drinking water, and medicine.

Through the sequestration of carbon, forests have a direct effect on the climate. The vegetation and soils in the forest help drive the global carbon cycle by sequestering CO2 through photosynthesis and then releasing it through respiration. All forests sequester carbon, but as forests age and the trees become more mature, their storage capacity decreases.

A major conservation issue facing the world today is deforestation—the rapid clearing and destruction of many areas of forest. Forested areas—particularly rain forest areas—are currently being cleared for other activities such as agriculture and rangeland for grazing livestock. Many of these areas are also being logged for their precious hardwood resources such as teak, mahogany, merbau, melina, and okoume. Mining operations claim yet other forested areas, and others are lost to human-caused wildfires.

As soon as the forest is destroyed, the carbon that was sequestered for long periods of time in the trees and soil is released to the atmosphere, forming CO2. In fact, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), tropical deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of the total human-caused CO2 emissions every year.

Currently, forests in the United States are considered to be net carbon "sinks" because they sequester (store) more carbon than they release. One reason for this is that many of the lands in the Northeast that were once cleared of forests are now being reclaimed by new forest growth—the more forest growth there is, the more net storage of carbon there is. Other factors are also helping give new forests a boost, such as better control of wildfire incidences, changes in the way trees are harvested for wood products, and increased growth in forests due to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in recent years. Even though U.S. forests have shown an increase in carbon sequestration since the 1980s, the UCS warns that the trend will most likely slow down as physical processes change or evolve. They have also stated that both forest and land-use practices, if managed correctly, have the potential to reduce net carbon emissions 10 to 20 percent of the projected fossil fuel emissions through 2050. In the United States alone, it may be possible to sequester 44 to 88 million tons (40 to 80 million metric tons) of carbon each year—an equivalent of 3 to 5 percent of current annual U.S. fossil fuel emissions. When looking at forests worldwide, there is even greater carbon sequestration potential by forests in the tropical and subtropical regions.

When looking for ways to manage, or mitigate, the effects of global warming, proper management of forested areas in order to protect, restore, and sustain the resources in forests is one of the more promising methods of offsetting the negative effects of global warming. The UCS has identified three different methods of forest-based mitigation:

• Conservation of existing forests. By leaving forests uncut, it preserves the carbon already stored in the trees, utilizing it as a carbon sink.

• Sequestration by increasing forest carbon absorption capacity. This can occur from planting new trees or through the natural regeneration of the forest on its own. Forests must be managed properly for this to occur.

• Substitution of sustainably produced biological products. This method involves substituting wood products for materials requiring energy-intensive production (such as aluminum or concrete), and substituting woody biomass for fossil fuels as an energy source.

The UCS also points out that if forests are managed properly in order to combat global warming, there are other resulting benefits as well. Benefits can be environmental, such as protecting biodiversity and watersheds; supporting food cycles; promoting healthy ecosystems, providing for humans; and conserving wildlife, vegetation, and water resources. Benefits can also be social, such as providing new jobs in local businesses.

One of the major problems in controlling deforestation is the lack of education. Much of those forested areas are cut for economic reasons. Two of the principal reasons are harvesting the valuable hardwoods strictly for their international market value and removing the forest in order to convert the land to farming and/or rangeland. When a promised income from these activities is presented to poor landowners in the Tropics, they are often accepted in order to gain much needed income to support starving families. What needs to be put in place are financial incentives to forest landowners to preserve the forests' long-term goods and services, outweighing any short-term gains that could be derived from forest destruction. To date, this has not happened, but scientists and resource specialists such as those with the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), as well as private interest groups such as the UCS, believe that if there were market-based incentives to promote forest conservation that were more enticing than those to destroy the forests, much of the problem could be solved, thereby decreasing the negative effects of global warming.

One of the proposed solutions to this problem includes increasing forest area and size, which improves biodiversity and forest ecosystem dynamics. The UCS has identified the following set of market-based approaches that they believe would promote forest-based mitigation of climate change:

• Slow deforestation internationally through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and other international investments in forest conservation.

• Create a carbon market that recognizes domestic forest carbon values and creates strong incentives for reducing emissions in the United States by protecting and restoring natural forests.

• Manage timber production forests for carbon and other environmental values.

• Preserve the integrity of mature forests when managing for timber or biomass.

• Maintain historical fire regimes.

• Maintain environmental safeguards on U.S. public forested lands.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is part of the Kyoto Protocol agreement (an international agreement designed to control global warming), which allows industrialized countries to invest in various emission reduction projects that are taking place in developing coun tries, where emissions abatement is economically efficient. The CDM enables developed countries to apply certified emission reductions to these areas and slow deforestation.

In Bonn, Germany, at the July 2001 climate policy negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was voted to grant CDM credits to projects that grow trees (afforestation and reforestation) in developing countries but not those that protect existing forests from being cleared or degraded. This decision applies only to the Kyoto Protocol's "first commitment period" in effect from 2008 to 2012.

While the CDM helps in areas of afforestation and reforestation, it severely lacks in probably the most important aspect: that of protecting and conserving the threatened natural forests. Conservation of existing forests is critical in order to slow CO2 emissions and prevent global warming, making the CDM one avenue that needs to be pursued in order to change the policy and add a clause to protect threatened natural forests.

In response to this, the U.S. Congress is currently considering legislation that will give U.S. businesses tax credits to invest in international forest-based projects that are designed to reduce global warming and protect biodiversity. A draft bill is now being considered by the House Energy and Commerce Committee that will provide provisions for protecting tropical forests in cap-and-trade legislation. The business credits from it would generate about $12-$15 billion by 2015 for international forest conservation. This draft has received the support of several key American businesses, such as American Electric Power, Conservation International, Duke Energy, Environmental Defense Fund, El Paso Corporation, National Wildlife Federation, Marriott International, Mercy Corps, Natural Resources Defense Council, PG&E Corporation, Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Union of Concerned Scientists, The Walt Disney Company, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Woods Hole Research Center. It would allow companies to receive credit for reducing emissions by financing activities that protect forests in tropical countries. It also calls for 5 percent of proceeds from the auctioning of greenhouse gas emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade system to go towards funding forest conservation projects.

The initiative is attractive to U.S. business because if offers a lower cost method for complying with emission caps. Environmental groups see the concept as a way to potentially generate substantial funds for forest conservation and sustainable development, while also helping mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.

The UCS believes the U.S. federal government needs to play an important role in controlling global warming. They believe that whether the U.S. government ever ratifies the Kyoto Protocol or not (which it has not yet), that it should still put mandatory limits (called "caps") on carbon emissions and also create an economy-wide domestic carbon market equivalent to what is stipulated in the protocol. Referred to as a "cap-and-trade" system, it allows the market flexibility to find the most efficient and innovative ways of meeting their mandatory emission limits. They believe that if businesses voluntarily take action to reduce carbon emissions, they should be rewarded by tax credits or other government incentives. There are several legislative proposals currently under consideration to provide such incentives for voluntary CO2 sequestration or emission reduction projects on private lands. Such voluntary activities include reforestation and changes in agricultural practices that lead to increased carbon storage in the soil, such as low- or no-till plowing methods. Rewards for these efforts could include tax credits or subsidies to land owners.

Forests that are currently utilized for timber production also need to be managed for carbon emissions. There are several methods by which this can be achieved:

• Expanding forest area by allowing the regrowth of trees, enabling the forest to increase in area naturally.

• Allowing trees to grow larger (which increases carbon storage).

• Establishing conservation set-asides (no-harvest areas) within productive forests.

• Using harvesting methods that reduce damage and waste.

When these conservation measures are followed, the benefits are twofold. Not only do they allow greater carbon storage, they also improve ecosystem health, which makes them more resilient in the face of global warming. When they have greater stability, they are better able to withstand the disturbances associated with climate change.

Controlling the harvesting dates within forests is also critical. Young trees grow more rapidly than mature trees, but as trees age, the more carbon they are able to sequester. The problem arises, however, when timber companies have a strong economic incentive to harvest at a faster rate (more trees, more revenue). According to L. A. Wayburn, et al., lengthening the time between harvests could significantly increase carbon storage in the Pacific Northwest and southeastern United States.

According to R. F. Noss of the University of Central Florida, "Establishing a carbon market and a sound regulatory framework could provide financial incentives to lengthen harvest cycles. Reducing damage to non-harvested trees and disturbance of forest soils during logging operations can also substantially reduce CO2 emissions."

Another major issue of concern is the widespread, but inaccurate, belief that logging and clearing mature forests and replacing them with fast-growing younger trees will benefit the climate by sequestering CO2. While it is true that young trees grow and sequester carbon quickly, the disturbance of stored carbon when mature forests are logged is also important. When a forest is logged, some of its carbon is stored for long periods of time (decades or longer) in wood products. But what may not be considered is that large quantities of CO2 are also released to the atmosphere as soon as the forest is disturbed. This happens through the disruption of the soil and the carbon stored within it, as well as decomposition of the leaves, branches, and other biomass left behind over time. According to M. E. Harmon, et al., one study found that even when storage of carbon in timber products is considered, the conversion of 12 million acres (5 million hectares) of mature forests to plantations in the Pacific Northwest over the last 100 years resulted in a net increase of more than 1.5 billion tons (1.4 billion metric tons) of carbon to the atmosphere.

Forest managers also warn that historical forest fire regimes should be left in their natural cycles; they should not be changed in order to increase carbon storage. Forest fires release significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. They also contribute up to 20 percent of the annual global emissions of methane and nitrogen oxide, which are both potent greenhouse gases. Wildfires (not anthropogenically induced) are natural occurrences, however, and forest managers such as those with the U.S. Forest Service believe that natural fires should not be purposely suppressed. Although not the case historically, they now believe that most forests develop in balance with a natural fire regime that is critical to ecosystem health. Some species of pine, for example, need infrequent hot fires for seed germination. The danger in suppression is that it leads to excess fuel accumulation (extra biomass, including dead vegetation). This exacerbates the problem because once a wildfire does start it will be more catastrophic and release even larger amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

In the United States, the federal government has a major responsibility for land management because 42 percent of all U.S. forests, including most of the old growth forests, are on public lands managed by the Forest Service, giving them a key role in helping control activities that affect global warming.

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