Countries accused of using ‘cynical trick’ to restore forests that does not tackle climate change

Scientists say nations like China and Brazil are growing commercial tree plantations at the expense of natural forest restoration

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 02 April 2019 14:51
Sir David Attenborough at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice: Climate change 'our greatest threat'

Scientists have unearthed a scandal at the heart of global plans to tackle climate change through tree planting.

Forest restoration has long been hailed as a vital tool to combat global warming, as trees are able to suck climate-warming CO2 from the atmosphere and keep it stored.

This vital mechanism has been undermined by deforestation, but nations are now aiming to reverse this process by replanting an area the size of India with trees by 2030.

However, in a new commentary published in Nature, a team of British researchers has revealed that most of the commitments made by nations including Brazil and China are not what they seem.

Rather than pledging to replace deforested regions with swathes of natural forests, almost half of the area covered by these commitments are destined to become commercial tree plantations.

These areas, planted to be harvested for wood and other commodities, provide carbon-cutting benefits 40 times smaller than those provided by the expanses of forest they replaced.

“There is a scandal here,” said Professor Simon Lewis from University College London, who led the study.

“To most people forest restoration means bringing back natural forests, but policy makers are calling vast monocultures ‘forest restoration’. And worse, the advertised climate benefits are absent.”

To meet the 1.5C warming goal laid out by experts to avoid climate disaster, the equivalent of all the CO2 pumped out by the UK, US, China and Germany since the Industrial Revolution must be removed from the atmosphere.

Trees planting is therefore critical, and to this end the Bonn Challenge was launched in 2011 as a global effort to restore 350 million hectares of deforested land by 2030.

Over 40 nations across the tropics, including the major economies of India, Brazil, China and Nigeria, have so far committed to restoring 292 million hectares.

However, the calculations performed by Professor Lewis and his colleagues concluded that this commitment will only help meet climate goals if it comprises natural forest.

“The reason plantations are so poor at storing carbon is that they are harvested every decade or so, meaning all the carbon stored in the trees goes back into the atmosphere, as the plantation waste and the wood products – mostly paper and chipboards – decompose,” explained Dr Charlotte Wheeler from the University of Edinburgh.

The scientists recommended that “forest restoration” measures must not be allowed to include plantations, and called for more natural forests to be planted while also protecting existing regions from the Amazon to Borneo.

“Millions of hectares of forest gets destroyed every year because companies and governments want to sell us palm oil to fuel our cars, soya to feed factory-farmed chickens, throwaway packaging and cheap beef to feed our addiction to meat,” said Greenpeace UK’s senior forest campaigner Richard George.

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“Worse, this study has revealed a cynical accountancy trick allowing governments to pass off short-lived single-crop plantations as permanent natural forest restoration despite the fact that they absorb and store far less carbon.

“This isn’t just cooking the books, it’s cooking the climate.”

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