The Integrated Global Forests Assessment reports that global forests have the potential to capture 226 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon. This potential can be reached as long as we cut our emissions.
Here we provide answers to some frequently asked questions on the research.
How long would it take to reach the full carbon drawdown potential of forests worldwide?
It is true that ecosystems take time to mature, and older forests store more carbon. Tropical forests for example can take 30 or 40 years to start plateauing to maturity.
However, this question is focused on carbon. Yet we must see forests for the multitude of benefits they provide beyond carbon capture. If we protect and restore nature in a way that prioritises biodiversity for local people, then we will see immediate benefits. Because the moment nature starts recovering, it can provide myriad services to the local communities that directly depend on these forests. Most importantly, whilst we are allowing these forests to recover, we must also cut our emissions drastically.
Over what time frame does the carbon potential you identify extend?
As with all other climate solutions, nature recovery takes time. Tropical forests can begin to reach maturity after 30 or 40 years. In boreal forests, it can take double that time. But the benefits are not only realised after they have reached maturity. And, as with all other climate solutions, nature recovery can have immediate positive effects. Every kilogram of emissions we avoid by protecting forests and preventing more land conversion starts to have a beneficial effect on the climate, and that only increases as the forests we protect continue to grow.
In addition, the benefits nature brings to local communities can happen within a year or two. These include positive effects on soil fertility, erosion risk, and food supply. A flourishing landscape is always more valuable to local people than a degraded one. When a healthy and biodiverse nature is the preferred choice for local communities, we will get long-term carbon capture as a byproduct.
Were you able to identify any areas globally where conservation or reforestation would be particularly effective?
The protection of tropical areas holds a massive carbon potential of 87 Gt of carbon.
The Amazon, Congo and Mekong river basins hold some of the most critical forest ecosystems that sustain life on this planet. Prioritising the conservation of these vital ecosystems is essential in the global effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Yet, large countries like the US and China also hold significant carbon storage potential, emphasising the importance of the world’s leading economies to initiate effective forest conservation and restoration.
We have seen massive forest fires in recent years that have remitted their stored carbon. How do those risks affect the storage potential of forest ecosystems?
The more we heat up the climate, the more we threaten our forests. The Integrated Global Forests Assessment indicates that we need nature for climate action but we also need climate action for nature. If we do not prevent fossil fuel emissions, the capacity of ecosystems to capture carbon will be threatened by rising temperature, drought and fire risks. Nature cannot be an excuse to avoid emissions cuts.
How do you overcome concerns that carbon sequestration via forestry is not permanent?
Trees come and go. Patches of forest and landscapes come and go. But the more room for nature there is on the planet, the more carbon will be stored in these systems at any given point in time. The Amazon rainforest has been storing hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon for thousands and thousands of years. This is a very long term carbon potential, so we need to shift our perspective of “permanence”. But carbon sequestration via nature-based solutions cannot be done at the expense of emissions cuts – or instead of emissions cuts. The more carbon we emit, the more threatened that global forest system becomes. This study is no cause for choosing nature over decarbonizing. We categorically need to move towards both to achieve long term carbon sequestration.
What about carbon markets? Do they help or hurt nature?
Carbon markets can potentially be a good thing. But they have had a very bad start: there have been some dangerous misconceptions that have been driving the carbon market.
To take the carbon market in a positive direction, we have to change three things:
- We have to stop the focus being only on carbon. If carbon is the only goal, people will always incentivise mass plantations, which are quicker and easier to get carbon. But that will ultimately have no beneficial impact. In the long run, we have to change the focus away from carbon and towards people and biodiversity. When people and biodiversity thrive, we will get real long term, sustainable carbon capture as a result.
- No more offsets. It is scientifically impossible to offset your future carbon emissions. We need organisations to look at their supply chain and reduce their carbon footprint. We need organisations to look at their supply chains and commit to zero deforestation. And this has to be done now.
- We need to support equitable development and not just carbon offsetting schemes. That is not global restoration. That is not equitable development. We need organisations who engage in nature restoration to be moving towards vast portfolios of local community driven projects. You can find and support projects on the platform Restor and engage with the global restoration movement. We need to be promoting millions of those local efforts, rather than just a few big well funded ones. We hope that if the carbon market can shift to focus on biodiversity and human well-being then it has potential to do some good.
How did you find that so much carbon storage potential exists in forests?
The average forest on our planet is degraded and at only ~30% of its full maturity. If we protect, sustainably manage, and allow them to reach full maturity, we can capture a huge amount of carbon as they progress towards that mature state. That is where the majority of the carbon drawdown comes. Old growth trees certainly store the largest proportion of carbon – and we are aiming for old growth climax forests in all conditions. But we only get that if people and nature are thriving together.
Why do monoculture plantations store so much less carbon than biodiverse forests?
Diverse ecosystems are more sustainable and more resilient. As a result, they survive longer and capture a lot more carbon. Imagine rows of one individual species that all look the same and compete for the same resources. Ecologically speaking, they are not forming a very efficient system.
But when you have mixtures of species – some with lower, some with higher canopy, some with deeper and others with shallower roots, all capturing nutrients in different ways, they make a much more efficient use of all of those resources that are available. And as a result, the productivity of the system is consistently higher.
In the paper, you state that a lot of this forest carbon potential can be achieved with limited land use conflict. How did you come to this conclusion? Is there a risk of clashing with agricultural expansion?
This research points to a critical ecological opportunity: if we can conserve the ecosystems we have, there is no existing land use conflict. Of course, this does not mean that these lands are completely absent from human activity: people live in these regions. But it is these local communities and Indigenous populations that live with and alongside nature that we need to support!
That is why we need to value and understand how Indigenous peoples are caring for the land. Studies indicate that forests taht are managed by Indigenous communities can contain ~36% more carbon per hectare. More specifically, in some community forests in Honduras, forest loss was 140 times lower under community-led forest rights initiatives. To achieve this carbon potential, we have to secure the rights of Indigenous people.
What we need is equitable development. It is about people being able to find the solutions that keep forests standing and that can revitalise nature, so that people and nature can thrive together.
The agricultural system can be a part of the environmental movement. We need to work together to achieve our global biodiversity goals. Introducing biodiversity into agricultural systems can enhance productivity whilst having biodiversity benefits.
Restoration isn’t just nature – or the absence of nature. It is people and nature thriving together.
What is your message to leaders going to COP28?
We need nature and we need to focus on decarbonizing: we cannot choose one over the other. We cannot cause damage and then say “it’s okay because I have offset it somewhere else.” We categorically need both, together.
There are two real things we can do: to end deforestation, and to protect our remaining forests. We also need equitable development to empower biodiversity and the people who depend on it all over the world.