Despite widespread awareness of global climate change and some efforts to combat it, we remain on a potentially catastrophic trajectory. Even the internationally accepted target of keeping the increase in global average temperature below 2°C is out of reach unless we adopt new strategies. In addition to significantly cutting the amount of carbon we emit, scientific consensus calls for negative CO2 emissions – capturing carbon – as an important part of our strategy.
Carbon dioxide is one of the most common greenhouse gases – but it’s also a prerequisite for plant life. Trees, like all other plants, absorb carbon dioxide, separate the carbon and oxygen atoms using photosynthesis, and release the oxygen back into the atmosphere. This is called carbon sequestration – the carbon is removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in the trees, until such a point as their wood is burned and it is released back into the atmosphere.
This mechanism is, functionally, the opposite of emitting carbon and makes it possible to counteract some emissions. Traditionally, this has been implemented in the form of carbon offset schemes, which enable organisations to plant a number of trees that will absorb the same amount of carbon they emit (often measured in tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent).
Carbon offset is often positioned as a sort of “sin tax” – a way to feel better about an organisation’s emissions. It also obscures the reality that newly-planted trees take years to absorb a significant amount of carbon, and so-called “forward crediting” – buying saplings with the assumption they will grow to maturity and absorb an amount of carbon – depends on the continuing existence of that forest.
However, this model underplays carbon sequestration’s potential. Forests are a net good for everybody, not just a way for individual organisations to pay off the harm they do to the environment. We are not taking full advantage of one of the few mechanisms for capturing carbon and increasing the time it takes to be re-emitted back into the atmosphere.
By increasing the percentage of the world covered by forests – the opposite of what humanity has been doing for the past few hundred years – and managing them in the correct way, we can mitigate the effects of climate change.
Forestry is the future
Forests act as the planet’s lungs, breathing in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen, but for too long, we’ve hacked at these lungs and limited their capacity. However, it’s not too late to grow forests significantly and reap the benefits – not just in terms of carbon sequestration, but also in sustainable building materials, wildlife habitats, recreational potential, and more.
Planting more trees is essential in our fight against climate change. However, the reality is more complex and planting trees is just the beginning. We need to create incentives for planting and protecting these trees and a system to ensure that they are cared for appropriately. Poorly managed forests are more susceptible to losses – from fire, wind damage, pests and diseases, among other risks – that can be avoided, or at least mitigated, through proper practice.
Mismanaged forests also represent a missed opportunity, as they capture less than half of the carbon that a well-managed forest could capture and yield around half the wood.
Some forestry proponents call for a “shut-the-gate” approach, where forests are permitted to grow wild, without the aid of modern techniques. In the shut-the-gate model, forests grow, develop and die, all without being harvested or managed. While interesting, this model is unsuitable for our current crisis. Leaving forests unmanaged would remove access to wood – one of the most sustainable manufacturing and construction materials available – and may even emit carbon in cases of uncontrolled forest fires.
One of the most effective means of managing a complex system is to turn it into a marketplace. Forests that are managed better will produce more and earn more profits – it’s a virtuous cycle wherein profit leads to sustainability and vice versa. This system involves precisely managing forests to maximise their output and, consequently, their carbon sequestration. We have long passed an era where passive forest management would suffice, and we need to carefully plan our forests using modern approaches such as big data.
Maximising our forests
According to The World Bank, the timber sector already contributes US$600 billion and 54.2 million jobs to the global economy – and there’s room for growth. By applying a market model to forestry, we can all benefit from a competitive approach to forest management and carbon sequestration. This model will apply positive pressure to increase the amount of forest coverage, as well as driving innovation and encouraging managers to increase the efficiency of their forests.
We’re out of time for other solutions – the world requires better forest management immediately. In our system, it’s money that makes things happen, and by bringing forests to the market, we can begin to deliver on the carbon capture side of the equation. Of course, reducing emissions is also vital, but we need both to create a liveable world for future generations.
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