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The continued use of wood – derived biomass could result in a potential 30% increase in worldwide forest cover — more than a billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) — by the year 2100, according to a new research paper. The researchers say their calculations show that all that’s needed are the right incentives, higher values on products, and stricter forest management.

The outcome of the study is the idea that providing a competitive financial incentive is one factor in encouraging the reforestation of areas where wood has been cut for biomass. For instance, if wood can earn harvesters more money than a replacement crop, such as palm for oil, then they would be more inclined to replant trees or afforest other areas, thus leading to an increase, over time, of overall forest cover.

Other factors like intensive forest management can result in the faster regrowth of areas of newly planted trees.

“We calculate that for every 1% increase in timber price, the area of plantations increases by 0.32% globally,” the report said.

The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) considers the use of wood biomass to be a carbon-neutral form of renewable energy because in theory, wood waste releases carbon as it naturally breaks down anyway, and therefore wood pellets are no more of a carbon pest.

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forest cover wood biomass
Wood pellets are a less efficient energy source than coal, meaning they actually release more CO2 into the atmosphere per megawatt of electricity produced.

But critics argue that whole trees end up being cut to make wood pellets instead, and concerns have been raised that the time it takes to replant forests used for biomass is too long, which reduces the forest cover and negates an area’s ability to act as a carbon sink.

Last year, six plaintiffs from across Europe and the U.S. filed a suit against the EU, alleging that the conversion from coal- to wood-pellet burning was having a disastrous effect on the atmosphere, because the reduced forest cover combined with newly planted trees do not grow fast enough to absorb carbon.

The new study comes just months after the COP25 climate summit in December, when Michael Norton, the program director of the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), warned against “waiting for new trees to grow while pumping additional carbon into the atmosphere by burning trees for energy.”

At the same summit, Will Gardiner, the CEO of wood pellet firm Drax, insisted that “a managed forest that keeps growing continues to capture more carbon.”

Speaking to Mongabay by phone, Adam Daigneault, one of the study’s co-authors and an assistant professor of forest, conservation and recreation policy at the University of Maine, stressed that the study was “not saying that this is a perfect cure all, because if you’re killing all incentives to have biomass removed … you actually get more forest loss.”

“Yes, it’s not perfect, but you’re at least retaining some forest as forest that might not otherwise be there,” he added.

Daigneault said it’s important to note that increased demand for biomass would not reduce logging; “It will go up,” he said. However, in the long run, the adjustment of prices for timber for biomass could mean that “the land is worth more as trees than something else.”

A statement from the University of Maine that accompanied the release of the report said the researchers used a global timber model to assess and compare bioenergy demands and timber harvesting in more than 200 forests in 16 different regions.

“While policy approaches vary on the regional level, their modelling analysis of the forest carbon rental payment approach indicates that forest area will increase substantially across the globe, with medium price scenarios leading to 500 million to 700 million new hectares of forests,” the statement said.

Asked if the billion-hectare projection was reasonable, Daigneault said it was achievable because “the model assumes that you have proper institutions … and proper knowledge” of forest management.

He pointed to South America as one region where he has anecdotally observed an increase in monoculture tree plantations, and said that, globally, the number of new tree plantations has “doubled” over the past 30 years.

“Incentivizing both wood-based bioenergy and forest sequestration could increase carbon sequestration and conserve natural forests simultaneously,” the researchers said in the abstract of the report. “We conclude that the expanded use of wood for bioenergy will result in net carbon benefits, but an efficient policy also needs to regulate forest carbon sequestration.”

The report does say, however, that while higher timber prices can incentivize afforestation, they also “encourage harvesting of natural forest areas.” In addition, the model only projects an increase in total carbon sequestration when the demand for woody biomass exceeds 1.1 billion cubic meters per year by the year 2100.

Mary Booth, an ecosystem scientist and the director of the nonprofit Partnership for Policy Integrity, described the study as a “disaster” that is being spun “as a positive story.”

“Every one of their scenarios shows a massive loss in natural forest area relative to the baseline,” Booth said in reference to the report’s graph projections. “They are projecting up to 250-million hectare loss in natural forests; whereas natural forests are the best defence against climate change. They are proposing that we should just tear them all up and replace them with plantations.”

In reality, she told Mongabay in an interview, replacement plantations are poor substitutes for the existing carbon sinks — both above and below ground — in natural forests, and “you would completely lose the ecosystems” in them, too.

“I say that if you want to start saving carbon right away, [natural forests] are already doing an amazing job soaking up carbon,” Booth said.

Booth, who advised the plaintiffs in the biomass case against the EU, pointed to Latvia and Slovakia as countries where incentivized wood bioenergy policies have resulted in massive carbon storage losses. In the U.S., she said, similar losses have also been reported in southern forests, where “what we see is a loss in carbon.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Lauren Crothers, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

A new study has indicated that 31.7% of tropical African flora species are at risk of going extinct, affecting those countries that rely on its biodiversity for tourism and fuel.

In the study, tropical flora was assessed across the continent. The findings were published in the Science Advances Journal and used an assessment process outlined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List criteria.

The research demonstrated that 6,990 of the 22,036 species studied, or 31.7%, are at risk of extinction. Much of western African countries, Ethiopia, and parts of Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the hardest-hit regions, standing to lose more than 40% of their flora. The species both at risk and potential risk include trees, shrubs, herbs and woody vines.

Biodiversity Loss in Africa

Loss of biodiversity will be particularly problematic in tropical Africa, “a region of incredible diversity but with major social and political challenges and expected rapid population growth over the next decades,” said lead researcher Dr Thomas Couvreur, a botanist at The French National Institute for Sustainable Development.

The situation could get worse. As well as the species that are at risk of extinction, a further 33.2% of the species studied are rare and could potentially be threatened with extinction. Major threats to biodiversity, especially in areas of exceptional plant diversity, primarily in the tropics, are often linked to industrial-scale activities such as timber exploitation or large plantations, mining and agriculture.

Research projects such as these are vital; while almost 90% of mammals and two-thirds of birds have been assessed, less than 8% of plants have been assessed, a surprising find considering how crucial plants are to the Earth’s ecosystems. This lack of data is especially true for tropical regions, such as the ones found in Africa, where the flora is extremely diverse, but have been poorly documented. 

Biodiversity going extinct has a knock-on effect. For example, some of the plant species that the African forest elephant eat can only germinate by passing through the animal’s digestive tract. Without these tree species, the elephants cannot eat and without the elephants, the tree species cannot reproduce, further emphasising the need to preserve these ecosystems.

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Commiphora is listed as endangered in four regions of Africa, including Ethiopia. (Source: Vinayaraj)

This assessment process aims to provide information on the conservation status of large numbers of species, following the guidelines of Preliminary Automated Conservation Assessments (PACA). By using PACA, the entire flora of a given area can be assessed. This allows species, both at threat and requiring additional attention, to be identified. 

The new approaches used in the study also provide useful guidelines for others to follow; they reduce cost, time and increase the potential of carrying out large-scale assessments. This is important as information can be gleaned quicker and at a cheaper rate. 

Professor Bonaventure Sonké, Professor at the Laboratory of Systematic Botany and Ecology of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (University Yaounde 1, Cameroon), says that the results were possible ‘because the partners involved agreed to share their data’. He adds that this creates ‘a strong signal to encourage researchers to share their data’.

The importance of sharing data is being realised and there is hope that this collaborative approach will produce solutions quicker. However, it may not be quick enough. The UN Environment Programme says, “No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa. Given its geographical position, the continent will be particularly vulnerable due to its considerably limited adaptive capacity, which will be exacerbated by widespread poverty.”

Despite this, perhaps the immensity of the challenges facing the continent can be mitigated through new approaches such as the ones used in the study. Dr Covreur says that “this study is the first large-scale assessment of the potential conservation status of the tropical African flora, explicitly using the IUCN’s methodology. While the results of the study are concerning, it is important that more studies such as these are conducted, so that threats facing biodiversity can be ascertained and managed.”

Article 14 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity explicitly states that environmental impact assessments (EIAs) should be conducted before implementing projects that could impact on biodiversity in an area. To reduce risks linked to environmental concerns, EIAs should identify adverse impacts by projects on biodiversity and indicate measures to avoid, minimise and offset these impacts. This process must be followed to ensure that the richness of these countries’ biodiversity is preserved. 

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