Because forests have an incredible ability to soak up carbon gas, governments and organizations have put much effort into forest programs. However, a new study warns about the possible consequences if the risks of planting new trees are not examined. Unmitigated risks may lead to extra carbon emissions.
The examination of risks in reforestation was suggested by researchers at the University of Utah, a public research university in the US. Their findings warned about the vulnerability of newly planted trees to climate change. Many of these trees could burn before they reached their full potential. The trees meant to develop forests would then emit more carbon gas. The researchers published the results in the journal Science.
Afforestation and Reforestation
Of all human activities, deforestation is one of the most devastating forces in the environment. When people convert a forest into something else, such as for agriculture or settlement, plants and trees are physically removed to clear the area. Animals are forced to evacuate and seek other forests to go on with their lives, while removed trees may be turned into manmade products. Although the conversion assists in expanding agricultural and housing projects, the evicted animals created an imbalance in other forests, and they have no control over it.
Due to deforestation, numerous ecosystems throughout the years have been altered significantly. Some animals did survive the alteration, but others did not because they are native to a specific ecosystem. Without that ecosystem, they became extinct. So, governments and organizations around the world have initiated programs to restore forests. These programs are mainly designed to revive forests and develop new carbon storage.
According to Sappi, a South African pulp and paper company, afforestation and reforestation are the two main methods to create new forests. But there is a major difference in these techniques. Both forest restoration methods involve planting new trees to grow tree covers, which will form new ecosystems to host animals and microorganisms. Reforestation is the restoration of forest areas partially or completely damaged by natural or manmade effects.
Afforestation, on the other hand, involves the planting of trees in an area that had no tree cover previously. Meaning, afforestation is the term used for developing forests in barren lands. Regardless of the technique used, new trees and forests are expected to grow in the coming years. The result can protect ecosystems, sustain the paper industry, and help the ongoing battle on greenhouse gas emissions.
Statista, a German portal for statistics, revealed that a total of 290,000 hectares worldwide were composed of planted forests in 2015. That was greater than the 264,084 hectares of planted forest in 2010, 242,965 hectares in 2005, 214,839 hectares in 2000, and 178,307 in 1990. Though, it also showed how much land was needed for new trees to reduce the damage to the world's entire forest land area.
As of 2020, Russia had the largest forest area in the world at 815 million hectares. It is followed by Brazil at 497 million hectares, Canada at 347 million hectares, the US at 310 million hectares, China at 220 million hectares, Australia at 134 million hectares, the Democratic Republic of the Congo at 126 million hectares, Indonesia at 92 million hectares, Peru at 72 million hectares, and India at 72 million hectares as well. These are the top 10 countries with the largest forest area on Earth, at least in the early months of 2020.
Risks of Forest Programs
Unfortunately, both afforestation and reforestation programs are at risk of negative outcomes. The risk is especially higher if no investigations of associated factors are conducted. According to researchers at the University of Utah, the situation today shows that new trees can be wiped out by climate change. This indicates that present and future efforts must understand the risks first before pushing forward. It will help mitigate some of those risks and prevent prospective trees from dying out early.
"This was designed to bring some of the people who had thought about this the most together and to start talking and come up with a roadmap… Without good science to tell us what those risks are, we're flying blind and not making the best policy decisions," said William Anderegg, the lead author of the study and biologist at the University of Utah.
Researchers understand the significance of forests in managing global carbon emission. Forests have been serving the planet as sponges of carbon. Their role in the carbon cycle helped preserved the normalcy of the global temperature for centuries, but the growth of the human population and advancements in technology outpaced the cycle. There were more carbon emissions in recent decades than the forces of carbon sequestration, which resulted in substantial global warming.
The approximate volume of carbon forests can store is one-quarter of annual carbon emissions, around 25% of the carbon generated by natural and manmade sources. This estimated volume motivated organizations to invest in forest programs to further increase that percentage. In theory, the higher the carbon sequestration rate is, the lower amount of carbon present in the atmosphere. Thus, reforestation programs and deforestation restrictions can be observed in several territories.
All investments including forest programs are subject to risks. Here is the problem: if the risks win, newly planted trees can burn. The effects of climate change on ecosystems can set trees ablaze. Forests razed to the ground by wildfires will trigger cascading events, including the loss of ecosystems for animals, unleash stored carbon gas into the atmosphere, and render land area unusable for a time.
Science has convinced governments that reforestation is the cheapest climate change mitigator. New forests absorb carbon, cool down the environment, host animals, and even provide natural resources for the local community. While there is nothing wrong with planting numerous trees, no tree species is not can store carbon permanently. Once they are stressed, infested by bugs, infected with diseases, and exposed to extreme temperatures, trees lose their ability to soak up carbon.
Researchers unveiled that the constant risks to forest programs include deforestation, droughts, wildfires, diseases, and pests. However, these risks were found to be increasing in the past several years. If climate change accelerated further, these risks would be more frequent in a single year. Trees would be exposed to the risks often, compared to the number of times they could recover.
To prevent failure in forest efforts, the team suggested the sharing of climate risks and predictive model results with policymakers. The data could be integrated into climate strategies to push for the best long-term outcome. The strategies might not completely avert the risks, but with data sharing, the forest programs could avoid irreversible adverse outcomes.