More trees, less climate change? 

By Dan Taylor, PhD Researcher, Aston University

The Supergen Bioenergy Hub team from Aston University (Joanna Sparks, Dan Taylor, Mirjam Rӧder & Katie Chong) hosted an open fishbowl debate on sustainable forests at the EuroScience Open Forum in Leiden, the Netherlands earlier this year. With the help of Luc Pelkmans (IEA Bioenergy) and facilitated by Gary Austin (circleindigo), the debate explored three questions:
1. What is a sustainable forest?
2. How can forests help with climate change?
3. What could a forest of the future look like?
Using the fishbowl style debate, where participants can switch in and out from the debating circle, we heard the perspectives of several attendees and the team who engaged in the debate. This blog piece draws from the debate we had, and the points made.

More trees, less climate change? 
From a young age, we are taught that trees produce the oxygen we need for life on Earth and take away the carbon dioxide we breathe out. We hear about the Amazon Rainforest being the “lungs of the Earth”. We are also told that trees are part of the solution to tackling the climate crisis. But what does that mean for our trees and forests in the future?

Aside from their ability to draw carbon from our atmosphere and lock it away, trees and forests are valued by people across the world in many ways. For some they hold religious or cultural importance, for others they are a central part of the community and ecosystem in which they live, used for recreation, a source of fuel, and as a home for local wildlife. They are hugely valuable, beyond just an economic sense of the word.

The value of forests will only increase in the future, thanks to their ability to both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis. More frequent extreme weather events such as flooding and landslides put communities and landscapes at risk, however forests offer protection from those. There is potential to create energy and useful chemicals from sustainable forestry practices, displacing fossil fuel use elsewhere. Forests not only create jobs and livelihoods for people when managed, they are habitats for biodiverse ecosystems of species which need protection.

In recent years tree-planting schemes have been touted as “the solution to carbon emissions”, however afforestation must be done carefully and in line with existing ecosystems. This is to ensure sustainability by avoiding the planting of huge biodiversity deficient monocultures, or introduction of species that might be susceptible to disease, fire, and rising temperatures. It is also paramount that the voices of local people are front and centre when it comes to afforestation, to maximise the economic, social, and environmental benefits of new forest systems. This will enhance support for policies that seek to increase tree-planting and protect existing forest coverage, delivering benefits to the communities and ecosystems impacted.

Beyond drawing carbon from our atmosphere, forest products also have the potential to displace fossil fuel use, helping to avoid emissions further. Utilising the highest quality timber to produce items such as furniture or building materials locks away the carbon. Waste wood from this process, and through managed forestry practices such as thinning, can be converted into local, low-carbon heating, avoiding the need to use fossil fuels. However, this must be done carefully, working with nature to understand the environmental impacts such as soil quality, water use and biodiversity. Certification must be strict to ensure forests are not exploited, and demand for woody biomass doesn’t encourage deforestation, but promotes and incentivises regenerative forestry practices.

Forests and trees are invaluable to our planet’s future. They present a nature-based solution to rising carbon emissions, helping us to reduce the impact of the climate crisis on people and nature, but only if done right. If we are to get it right, we need to move away from the simplistic notion that just planting more trees means less climate change. Forest ecosystems and our environment are complex, valued across the world by humans and wildlife for more than just their ability to draw carbon from our atmosphere. A sustainable forest of the future will take this into account, acting locally but thinking globally, by delivering benefits for people and carbon dioxide removals for the planet.

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