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Climate Change: What We Do

The Role of Forests in Reducing Emissions

Every year, more than 15 million hectares of tropical forest — an area larger than the state of New York — are cut down, releasing millions of tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Without action now, many of the world’s tropical forests will be lost by this century’s end. With these forests we will lose important species, natural resources and local livelihoods, as well as the opportunity to slow climate change.

In fact, recent studies show that activities to reduce deforestation are a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Consider the following:

  • A 2006 study commissioned by the U.K. Treasury has concluded that reducing deforestation offers a major opportunity to reduce emissions at a relatively low cost. The study found that in eight countries responsible for 70 percent of emissions from land use changes, just one hectare of forest land could be worth as much as $25,000 in terms of carbon sequestration at a carbon price of $35-$50. The returns from this same hectare of land would range from $2 a year for pastoral use, to just over $1,000 for soy and palm oil conversion and one-time returns of $236 to $1,035 from timber sales.
  • The same study states that, if no action is taken to reduce our emissions, each ton of carbon dioxide emitted will cause $85 worth of damage to the world’s economy.
  • Conversely, climate change researchers Brent Sohngen and Robert H. Beach have found that for an average price of $27.25 per ton of carbon dioxide in the emissions exchange market “deforestation can potentially be virtually eliminated.” These researchers have concluded that there is a large potential for reduced deforestation to help mitigate the costs of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
  • According to Sohngen and Bach, efforts to reduce global deforestation could result in the sequestration of 76 billion tons of carbon and 422 million hectares in additional forests.
  • Finally, Stuart E. Eizenstat, chief American negotiator of the Kyoto protocol, has noted that the additional income that poorer countries would receive from expanded use of forestry offsets could motivate their participation in a post-Kyoto regime. 
Additional Benefits of Forests
  • More than 1 billion people living in extreme poverty depend on forests for their water, fuel or livelihoods.
  • Tropical forests cover only 12 percent of the planet but are home to more than one-half of the Earth’s known plants and animal species. At the current rate of deforestation, tropical rain forests will virtually disappear as functioning ecosystems within 100 years. Deforestation also degrades important natural resources, like supplies of clean fresh water. In addition, the massive burning of forests can lead to severe air pollution both locally and thousands of miles away.
  • South American forests are home to the greatest plant biodiversity in the world, and are the source of essential pharmaceutical ingredients. Up to 50 percent of pharmaceuticals on the market today have an origin in natural products, and 42 percent of the top 25 selling drugs worldwide are derived from natural products.
  • Forests contribute significantly to national economies through recreation and tourism. For example, 3.5 million people visited Brazil’s 150 conservation areas between 1991 and 1999, helping fuel a five-fold increase in tourism for the country.
Are All Forests Created Equal?

A recent preliminary study suggests that the impact of reforestation on global temperatures varies depending upon the forest’s latitude. In the lower latitudes of the tropics, replanting forests offers a significant global cooling benefit relative to croplands or grasslands. However, at higher latitudes such as in the northern boreal areas, the climate change benefits from reforestation may be less than expected because of warming that happens when the sun's heat is absorbed by the dark forest canopy.   Because of the preliminary nature of this study, we encourage more research, but are still using it to help guide our work.
 
Specifically the Conservancy focuses on the following activities when choosing forestry projects for climate change reduction:

  • In tropical areas, such as Central and South American rainforests, we are implementing restoration and protection strategies. According to this research, the cooling effects of protecting and restoring forest cover in the tropics may be even greater than originally estimated. Nearly all of the forest carbon project areas that the Conservancy is working in at this point are in the tropics.
  • In temperate and mid-latitude zones, such as the southern United States, we are improving forest management. Activities that help to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere without changing the amount of heat absorbed by the forest canopy, such as reducing the frequency and amount of selective logging, will help to reduce warming.
  • In high latitudes, such as the northern boreal forests, we are implementing changes in grazing or cropland management activities. For example, reduced-till agriculture can help to pull CO2 out of the air without increasing the amount of heat directly absorbed by the crop or grazing lands.

 

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