By Mary Hearty
Forests play a critical role in delaying climate change by absorbing a significant amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as they sequester twice as much as they emit.
According to the World Resources Institute, the world’s forests absorbed 16 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and emitted an average of 8.1 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year due to deforestation and other disturbances.
However, with the clearing of these forests especially, the tropical rainforests, owing to agricultural expansion, uncontrolled fires, and drainage of peat soils, scientists predict that by 2030, the forests will be able to release more carbon dioxide than they take up, hence add to the problem of climate change, rather than mitigating against.
This is because, in the absence of other proven technologies for capturing carbon at scale, forest maintenance and restoration are the only ways to remove significant volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Consequently, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the 2022 report on the State of World Forests suggests that halting deforestation is potentially one of the most cost-effective actions for mitigating and adapting to climate change and reducing biodiversity loss if efforts ramp up.
The reason for this is that it would avoid direct emissions from the lost biomass as well as maintain the capacity of forests to absorb carbon and support resilience and sustainable livelihoods.
A study shows that a program providing a 10% reduction in deforestation from 2005 to 2030 could provide 0.3–0.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year in emissions reduction and would require $0.4 billion to $1.7 billion per year for 30 years.
Whereas a 50% reduction in deforestation from 2005 to 2030 could provide 1.5–2.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year in emissions reduction and would require $17.2 billion to $28.0 billion per year.
It has also been suggested that investing in the comparatively lower cost of forest-based mitigation would result in an overall lower cost for meeting climate targets globally and potentially release funds that could be used for further mitigation actions.
For instance, research published in Nature estimates that the removal of carbon dioxide from tropical reforestation between 2020 -2050 could be increased by 5.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (5.6%) at US $20 per carbon, or by 15.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (14.8%) at US$50 per carbon. Whereas avoided deforestation offers about 7 -9 times as much potential low-cost carbon reduction as reforestation overall in 21 countries, 17 of which are in Africa.
Globally, ecosystems at risk of deforestation or degradation contain at least 260 gigatonnes of irrecoverable or difficult-to-recover carbon, particularly in peatlands, mangroves, old-growth forests and marshes.
Therefore, unless additional actions are taken, an estimated 289 million ha of forests would be deforested between 2016 and 2050 in the tropics alone, resulting in the emission of 169 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.
At the moment in Africa, deforestation is highest in forestlands with weak management and tenure security, such as open access land in Tanzania and communal lands in Kenya. In Uganda, deforestation is highest in private land forests, with less deforestation occurring in government-managed public forests, especially in protected areas.
For that reason, the FAO notes that policy responses for halting deforestation typically involve creating incentives for forest conservation, addressing the potential conflicts with development pathways, food security and economic needs, and investing in enabling conditions for more efficient land-use decisions.