Restoring and maintaining natural forests can be a key to controlling carbon in the atmosphere

A trained dog scatters tree seeds in a forest in Chile that was devastated by fire in 2017.
A trained dog scatters tree seeds in a forest in Chile that was devastated by fire in 2017.
Credit: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty

News: Recent headlines and research built on the 2018 IPCC special report have indicated that planting about 1 billion new hectares of forest globally (and preserving those trees to maturity) could substantially help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C by 2050; 1 hectare is equivalent to about 2.5 acres.

That sounds somewhat encouraging (though a 1.5 degree C increase will still have large and even devastating consequences in many parts of the world) and does indicate “the magnitude of what forests can do for us.”

But, getting there in the very short amount of time available is a massive challenge (for example, it requires planting 24 million hectares of new forest every year through 2030). And, not all forests work equally well.

There are multiple international forest restoration efforts currently underway (such as the Bonn Challenge). But, analysis shows that “restoration” is interpreted and implemented in different ways by different countries.

According to current thinking, the most likely successful paths appear to be:

*Regenerating “natural forests” (not agroforestry or commercial tree plantations) is the best way to sequester carbon.

*Natural forest regeneration should especially happen in the “humid tropics” (like the Amazon region or the Congo Basin).

*It doesn’t have to be all new forests; current degraded forests and partly wooded areas could be allowed and helped to regenerate. For carbon sequestration, natural forest regeneration is better then agroforestry, and agroforestry is better then commercial tree plantations.

*Finally, “once natural forest is restored, protect it.”

We still have a choice about our future. The naysayers and deniers will be loud and dismissive especially if the choices do not align with their political and economic interests. But, there may be a path–and the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere through the use of forests is “the permanent re-establishment of largely natural and largely intact forest.”

Learn more: Restoring natural forests is the best way to remove atmospheric carbon (Simon L. Lewis, et al., Nature, 2 April 2019).

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