Trees are heroes – more than we ever knew – in the fight against the climate

Forests play a much larger role in moderating global temperature rise than previously thought, and improving the management of global forests could represent one of the most promising natural solutions to the problem. of climate change, according to a new study led by Deborah Lawrence, a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia.

In an article published this month, Lawrence, along with colleagues from the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, suggest that policies focused on reducing carbon dioxide emissions emissions alone will not be enough to reverse climate change.

“Limiting greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is how we ultimately mitigate global warming, but it turns out that doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s happening on the surface of the planet,” he said. Lawrence said. “It’s just not a complete picture.”

After conducting a study of how deforestation has far-reaching effects on regional rainfall and temperature, Lawrence surmised that it might be possible to quantify how these biophysical factors might contribute to climate change on a much larger scale.

Existing research and climate change models already recognize the important role that forests play in absorbing 25-29% of the carbon that humans release into the atmosphere. But, she noted, they do not take into account the impact of forests on local and regional temperatures, nor the contribution of biogenic volatile organic compounds – organic carbon molecules emitted by vegetation. These molecules regulate the useful interaction between plants and the atmosphere.

She said current models also fail to account for the role forests play in forming cloud cover, which can reduce the impact of solar radiation and influence precipitation levels, both of which can have considerable regional consequences.

With the help of his colleagues, Lawrence began an exhaustive survey of data and research on temperature associated with forest cover, or lack thereof, to develop a more complete picture. The team also developed an updated database of aboveground biomass, to more accurately reflect the volume of global forests. Previous estimates were up to 20 years behind schedule.

The efforts gave the team a more holistic view of the environmental factors that have the greatest effect on global temperatures.

“What we’ve done is bring together things that haven’t always been in the same place, so they’re all comparable and they’re all on the same scale,” Lawrence said.

The study also provided Lawrence and his co-authors with data suggesting that the world’s forests currently provide up to half a degree of cooling. Maintaining the health of the world’s forests is an essential ingredient in the effort to prevent global warming from increasing by 2 degrees, which, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , must be prevented in order to avoid major and irreversible climate change.

The data also suggests that the cooling effect is more pronounced in tropical forests in regions of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia – closer to 1 degree Celsius.

The authors of the paper claim that the benefits of forests at any latitude contribute significantly to climate change mitigation, but they write that “in the tropics, where forest carbon stocks and sequestration rates are highest, the biophysical effects of forests amplify carbon benefits, highlighting the critical importance of protecting, expanding and improving the management of tropical forests.

A forest management approach also helps to make the problem of climate change locally solvable and gives local decision makers new tools, especially when forest land is being lost at a net rate of more than 19 000 square miles every year. year.

“The whole conversation is about global warming, but we felt that doesn’t help people understand what’s happening in their own area,” Lawrence said.

While mitigating climate change is essential, it is also important to start thinking about developing strategies to adapt to certain unavoidable climate effects, she added.

“Forests have always played a role in climate mitigation,” Lawrence said. “But let’s think beyond mitigation to adaptation. Forests are also a very effective adaptation tool. Anyone who wants to tackle climate change now doesn’t have to wait for the United States and China to cut their emissions. You plant trees now and you will avoid the worst local effects of climate change.

“I’m not saying we don’t need to reduce emissions. We do. But in the meantime, there are steps we can take that will actually help us adapt.

The paper was published in Frontiers for Global Change.

William M. Shobe, professor of public policy at AVU’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and director of the Center for Economics and Policy Studies at AVU’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Services, said the paper “highlights the central importance of a ‘whole ecosystem’ approach when thinking about the problem.

“Much attention has been paid to the ability of forests to absorb and retain large stocks of carbon, thereby helping to control carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere,” he said. “The authors demonstrate that the other physical characteristics of forests are of the same order of importance. From a policy perspective, this means that to estimate the value of ecosystem services provided by forests, we need to expand our understanding of the economic value generated by forests, and valuing these additional forest services is a challenge. size for economists and policy makers.

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