Forests' role as carbon sinks at risk

On the occasion of the UN Forum on Forests, which begins today, Monday 20 April 2009 in New York a new study “Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change – A Global Assessment” coordinated by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) damage to forests from climate change could cost the planet its major keeper of greenhouse gases.

The report presents the state of scientific knowledge regarding the current and projected future impacts of climate change on forests and people along with options for adaptation.

The study notes that the higher temperatures—along with the prolonged droughts, more intense pest invasions, and other environmental stresses that could accompany climate change—would lead to considerable forest destruction and degradation. This could create a dangerous feedback loop in which damage to forests from climate change significantly increases global carbon emissions which then exacerbate the greenhouse effect.

“We normally think of forests as putting the brakes on global warming, but in fact over the next few decades, damage induced by climate change could cause forests to release huge quantities of carbon and create a situation in which they do more to accelerate warming than to slow it down,” said Risto Seppälä, a professor at the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla) and Immediate Past President of IUFRO, who chaired the expert panel that produced the report.

While deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of greenhouse gases, overall, forests currently absorb more carbon than they emit. The trees and soils of the world’s forests are capturing and storing more than a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions. The problem, scientists say, is that this critical carbon-regulating service could be lost entirely if the earth heats up 2.5 degrees Celsius.

“Policymakers should focus greater attention on helping forests and the people who live around them adapt to anticipated problems,” said Professor Seppälä. “For example, wider application of well-understood sustainable forestry practices, which offer a range of benefits, could help forests avoid some of the damage induced by climate change.”