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Forests Are More than Sinks that Inhale Carbon, Study Warns

Well-meaning efforts to save the world's trees ignore forests' contributions to agriculture, energy, medicine and the livelihoods of local people

Feb 2, 2011

With their ability to soak up heat-trapping gases from the atmosphere, forests are front and center in international discussions about slowing climate change. But a growing chorus of researchers says the planet's trees have plenty more to offer the world beyond acting as sinks that inhale carbon.

This point was borne out by a new report presented in New York this week during the Ninth Session of United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF).

Discussions at the meeting will feed into UN talks on the formal forestry agreement taking shape, known as REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, said Jeremy Rayner, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan Graduate School of Public Policy.

"Forest governance, although it covers most of the issues, is very complex and badly coordinated," Rayner told SolveClimate News. "And as a result, it is difficult to find a specific instrument that is forest-related, instead of forest-focused."

By "forest-focused," Rayner is referring to international pacts that narrowly focus on forests as carbon sinks. Most of the well-meaning efforts intended to protect forests, including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the global boycotts of tropical timber, ignore forests' contributions to agriculture, energy, medicine, and the livelihoods of millions of indigenous individuals, Rayner said.

Country Leaders 'Eager' to End Forest Loss

Of course, keeping forests standing is a necessary first step. Worldwide, deforestation is continuing at a rate of about 33 million acres per year, an area roughly the size of Greece or Nicaragua, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Under a global REDD scheme, rich countries would pay poor ones billions of dollars per year to preserve their natural and endangered forests. The program is a win-win, supporters say, since the world's forests absorb billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

And with deforestation and degraded forested land accounting for an estimated 15 to 20 percent of global CO2 emissions, "country leaders are eager to stop this process to get their hands around the climate problem," Rayner said.

Private companies and investors are already putting money into programs that store carbon in forests.

Current Schemes to Yield 'Disappointing' Results

Rayner chaired a panel brought together by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a group of more than 15,000 scientists in over 110 countries. The panel produced the 172-page report, "Embracing Complexity: Meeting the Challenges of International Forest Governance" that Rayner and others presented in New York on January 31.

The IUFRO report emphasizes that the current top-down approach that focuses entirely on carbon must be expanded to include forest programs that respond to the needs of a country and its local people.

"International approaches that aim to transform forests into storehouses for carbon or for biodiversity, or for some narrow purpose, are inevitably going to produce disappointing results," noted Constance McDermott, a senior fellow at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and a co-author of a report.

In Cancun, UN delegates established a program that added some safeguards into the implementation of REDD, known as REDD-plus. This pact includes conservation, the sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks as part of REDD's goals.

However, even with REDD-plus, the problem with international forest agreements that aim to "solve" climate change is that they oversimplify the very complex problems associated with forest degradation, Rayner said.

Forests

Whatever their full advantages are to the environment there's no doubt we should cherish them.

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