Carbon, carbon, carbon & billions of trees

by Naomi van den Berg

The UNFCCC showers you with a number of fancy words that get repeated endlessly: mitigation, adaptation, facilitation, framework, negotiations, and – of course – carbon. Carbon, the element of life, has drastically changed its reputation in the past few decades or so, turning out to detrimentally change our climate. But this is no news (except for the skeptics among us – hi Trump!). Now, there are two ways to go about this carbon issue: we either increase our energy efficiency in order to limit our carbon emissions, and/or we capture the carbon from the air, aiming for a so-called ‘negative emission’. A negative emission, counter intuitively perhaps, means climate utopia:  it describes a situation in which more carbon is taken up from the air than is emitted. Fantastic, but how could we ever realize this negative emission?

Well, as you may have guessed, trees contribute to the answer. At the session called ‘Protecting and Restoring the Global Forest Carbon Stock’, a joint-effort between Greenpeace and Rainforest Foundation Norway, a number of experts shared their experience in research and outreach on the matter. All speakers agreed: in order to reach the Paris Agreement goal of staying under 1.5 °C, we need to address the forests. More specifically, we need to address ghosts of forests. As spooky as this may sound, a promising opportunity lies ahead.

The greatest potential of carbon storage lies in degraded/deforested lands (please see the graph below provided by one of the speakers: Lars Laestadius). Often, these have been cleared to make way for pasturelands; those no longer serving an agricultural purpose often remain grassland systems due to the intricate dynamics of alternative ecosystem equilibria (for the hardcore forest fanatics among us, I highly recommend reading Scheffer et al., 2001). Grasses, of course, capture way less carbon than woody plants do.

 

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The good news is that these lands of opportunity occur all over the world, and – according to the speakers – mostly in the African continent. The biggest opportunity lies in the so-called mosaic-type of restoration: a mix of people, crops, animals and forests. However, as the speakers stressed, we need to redefine the type of forest we aim for during restoration: we need to deviate from forests in the classical sense (pristine and ‘untouched’ by humanity), simply because the most effective forest restoration strategies have actually proven to be those that involve the local communities and allow them to take part in sharing the many benefits of the forest.

All speakers agreed: let’s not underestimate the potential of forests: especially the ghosts of forests. And: success in restoration efforts can only be achieved if local benefits are granted.

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