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Carbon sinks extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorb more carbon than they release. Carbon sources, conversely, release more carbon than they absorb. They cover about 30% of the Earth’s land surface and as much as 45% of the carbon stored on land is tied up in these sinks. Carbon sinks are therefore an essential means of helping fight climate change, but without major changes to current human practices, they are unable to mitigate the detrimental effects alone. 

The Carbon Cycle 

The carbon cycle refers to the natural flow of carbon between the ocean, rocks, fossil fuels and living organisms. Forests are examples of carbon sinks as trees and plants extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis – some is also stored. When plants die, the carbon dissolves into the soil where microbes are then able to release the carbon back into the atmosphere by process of decomposition, where it’s available to other plants for photosynthesis.

Oceans are considered to be the main natural carbon sinks, absorbing approximately 50% of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Plankton, corals, fish, algae and other photosynthetic bacteria contribute to this extraction of carbon

Any process that uses fossil fuels – such as burning coal to generate electricity – releases more carbon into the atmosphere than carbon sinks can absorb. Cattle farming also releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. It also contributes to deforestation, depleting the planet of its carbon sinks; according to the World Resources Institute, farms emitted 6.6 billions tons of greenhouse gases in 2011, equivalent to about 13% of total emissions. The agricultural sector is the world’s second largest emitter of GHGs, after the energy sector. 

Ideally, the carbon cycle would maintain Earth’s carbon concentration, helping to move carbon from one location to the next and keeping atmospheric carbon levels stable. However, due to human activity, the carbon cycle is changing: we are releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than Earth can handle by using fossil fuels and maintaining large livestock operations. Deforestation is further exacerbating this problem as it depletes the Earth’s  supply of carbon sinks. Since 2016, an average of 28 million hectares have been cut down every year, equivalent to one football field of forest lost every second. Consequently, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is rising. 

Solutions to combat this problem include banning deforestation, planting more trees, utilising renewable energy sources and reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Carbons Sinks Examples

Aside from the aforementioned oceans being the main natural carbon sink in the world, forests are also significant carbon sinks examples as well. According to a report published in January 2021, forests absorb twice as much carbon as they release each year,  absorbing a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

As the world’s largest and best known tropical rainforest, the Amazon accounts for just over a third of tree cover across the tropics and is one of the most important natural carbon sinks in the world.  Their role is more important than ever especially as the world’s carbon emissions exponentially increase over the last few decades. However, recent studies have recorded the Amazon releasing higher carbon emissions than absorbing it due to deforestation and higher rates of wildfires.

Similarly, mangroves are highly regarded in their role of absorbing and capturing carbon in the atmosphere, and in fact, have been known to be a more effective carbon sink than forests. Mangroves have been recorded to absorb almost 10 times as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than terrestrial forests. Indonesia currently boasts the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem, accounting 23% of the world’s total.

Recent research in what has been dubbed as the world’s largest seagrass project, has also found seagrass to be a particularly effective carbon sink and hugely successful in restoring oceans and  purifying the water.

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carbon sinks

(Source: Earth.Org) 

Artificial Techniques 

In addition to natural carbon sinks, technological advances have helped produce artificial techniques that extract carbon from the atmosphere. 

Examples include: using geological carbon sequestration techniques that inject carbon dioxide into deep saline aquifers to produce large pockets of salt water; injecting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations deep under the Earth’s surface and using light-sensitive algae that are capable of absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen.

Artificial technologies, however, are not efficient or advanced enough to cope with the effects of the climate crisis. Investing in research and companies who commit to finding alternate ways of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will prove worthwhile.

With global poverty expected to increase drastically due to the coronavirus pandemic, experts say that it has become more important to review the capacity of forests to cushion economically-disadvantaged sectors from exacerbated levels of impoverishment. 

In its report “Forests, Trees and the Eradication of Poverty: Potential and Limitations,” released in October, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) said that forests play a “crucial role in risk management, preventing the poor from sinking even deeper into poverty.”

“Globally, around 40% of the extreme poor – or some 250 million people – are estimated to live in forest and savannah areas, and frequently, the rural areas where the world’s poorest live have high tree cover and high levels of biodiversity,” the study said.  

Countries have already started to repair nature as part of their plans to revitalise the economy post-COVID-19. 

Now there are also calls to focus on forests – a rich source of resources. From providing sources of income through timber and non-timber forest products to strengthening food security, forests have contributed to as much as 25% of the income of rural households, the report’s accompanying policy brief said. 

IUFRO cited examples in Mexico, where granting communities with direct control over most parts of the value chain in commercial forest management, has decreased poverty. Trained by forestry authorities, the state government in the region of Yucatan and civil society organisations,  communities manage their own forests and forest enterprises and have their own sawmills instead of “stumpage,” or set fees for private firms that want to harvest or cut trees from forests. Owning their own sawmills also gives these communities more control over the production of lumber. 

Further, a 2019 project in Madagascar, saw vanilla orchids from agroforestry plantations – which were cultivated in native as well as other forests- bringing much-needed income to families. Vanilla derived from the orchids is sold abroad.

While forests have helped mitigate poverty, the violation of rights of forest dwellers like indigenous people and their prohibition from accessing the forests themselves have resulted in lopsided development in tropical forest-rich countries like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Those that benefited economically, historically, as the study pointed out, were European countries like Belgium, France and Germany, as they are the ones which landed deals for forest exploitation and conversion.  

Global Witness reported in 2018 that illegal logging by European company Norsudtimber continues to expand, an allegation that the company has denied, while France and Norway reportedly planned to pour funds into industrial logging in DRC. There was positive development in 2019, however, as DRC officials issued a forest concession for the first time to indigenous communities.

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IUFRO pointed out then that it’s important to identify the factors limiting the potential of forests to reduce poverty and how these should be addressed:

Taking these into consideration, IUFRO said policymakers and leaders worldwide should include better management and use of forests in their post-pandemic recovery plans. 

“Governmental policies to alleviate poverty typically tend to focus on agriculture, infrastructure, and cash transfers, among others, while neglecting the role of forests. This approach threatens not only to undermine efforts to conserve, restore and sustainably manage forests but also to lessen gains made in alleviating poverty.”

 

As the climate warms and catastrophic wildfires become more common, land managers are seeking ways to reduce the risk of forest fires while maintaining forest health. A new pilot plan in Arizona hopes to accomplish this goal by selectively cutting some of the trees in the forest—a strategy known as forest thinning – and selling the felled timber as wood chips to South Korean buyers. It seems like a win-win solution: the forests are preserved, and communities gain some fire safety and make some money in the process. How does it work?

Besides climate change, the general consensus, according to Sharon Hood and her colleagues, writing in the journal Ecological Application, is that the growth in catastrophic fires stems from decades of overzealous fire suppression. Without fire, too many trees survive and grow. Old and young trees cram unnaturally close together, making forests more vulnerable not only to severe fire, but to disease and pest infestation. Infestations can kill trees, resulting in more dry fuel, and an even greater risk of catastrophic fire.

Working in Ponderosa Pine forests, in western Montana, Sharon Hood and her colleagues examined how different fire treatments affected the forest’s ability to withstand infestation by the mountain pine beetle, a pest that can leave huge swaths of trees dead—and susceptible to fire. In the densely packed forests that had not burned recently, pine beetles killed as many as 50% of trees. The researchers wanted to test whether forest thinning, controlled burning, or a combination of both might prevent beetle infestations and increase overall fire resistance.

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Simply burning the forest helped control beetles, but not much. In areas exposed only to fire, tree mortality was lower than in unburned forests, but still quite high. However, when forests were thinned, or thinned in combination with burning, tree deaths from pine beetle infestation declined almost to zero. Thinning alone, and thinning and burning together, were so successful that even forest already coping with a beetle outbreak became fire resistant.

If left unburned or unthinned, beetle attacks eventually shifted the entire character of the forest by shifting the dominant tree species. Thinning, then, can help to reduce the risk of severe fire not only by reducing the dangerous fuel buildup in unburned forests, but by helping the forest resist beetle infestation and the increased fire risk that infestation brings.

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The conclusion is that at least in the short term, proper forest thinning has the potential to drastically reduce not only fire danger but other threats as well. Hood and colleagues note that while thinning is highly effective in the short term, in the long term, forest health requires the restoration of a normal fire regime. If tree density isn’t maintained at a natural level, the whole process will need to be repeated.

Thinning needs to be done properly. It should not be an excuse for backdoor logging, as removal of older, mature trees is not as helpful as removing the smaller trees that fuel massive fires. The scheme to sell the thinned wood as chips is kind of genius, as the small scrubby trees being thinned have little value for anything else. One caveat is that the chips will be burned as fuel, so from a carbon storage perspective, the solution is not ideal. On the other hand, if the trees would have burned in a fire anyway, maybe that doesn’t matter.Featured image by: BLM Nevada

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily, written by James MacDonald , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

According to new data, harvesting in Europe has caused the continent to lose a vastly increased area of forests in recent years, reducing the continent’s carbon sequestration capacity and placing doubts on the EU’s ability to mitigate the climate crisis.

Many of the EU’s forests, which roughly accounts for about 38% of its land surface area, are managed and harvested regularly for timber production. However, according to satellite data, the loss of biomass increased by 69% in the period from 2016 to 2018 when compared with the same period from 2011 to 2015. The area of forest harvested increased by 49% in the same comparison, published in the journal Nature Research

Even accounting for natural events such as fires and heavy snows, this data shows that far more harvesting of forests has occurred in Europe in a short period of time.

Other factors may include increased demand for wood as fuel and expansions of timber markets along with wood products. This data shows that forests are being unsustainably harvested.

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Of 26 countries studied, this harvesting is most pronounced in Sweden, which accounted for 29% of the increase, Finland for about 22%, and Poland, Spain, Latvia, Portugal and Estonia jointly accounted for about 30% of the increase. 

Guido Ceccherini of the EU Joint Research Centre and lead author of the study, says that the observed increase in harvesting and the subsequent loss of biomass was unlikely to result in the decline of overall forested area in the EU as harvested forests regenerate. However, it would disrupt the carbon absorption capacity of the forests in the short term, he said. 

Ceccherini says, “The forests continue to remain a carbon sink, but less than before. Even if part of the harvested biomass carbon is used in long-lasting wood products, possibly replacing more energy -intensive materials such as steel or cement, most of it will return to the atmosphere as CO2 in a short period of time, [from] months to a few years. Until the carbon stock in harvested areas returns to previous levels, which takes several decades, depending on the type of forest, an increase in harvest is therefore equivalent to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” 

Although Europe’s carbon balance may not be greatly affected in the long term, with harvested forests regenerating, the researchers claim that it is important to find out why harvesting has increased so rapidly, as this may indicate larger underlying issues with regards to the way in which Europe’s forests are being managed. More research is needed in order to establish definitive causes. However, the researchers have hypothesised that an increase in the demand for timber and wood products, such as pulp and paper, and more burning of biomass for fuel may be the reasons for the rapid rise in harvesting observed in the Nordic countries. 

Professor Thomas Crowther, founder of Crowther Lab, who was not involved in the research, said: “It is concerning to see that the increasing demand for forest products may be reducing the carbon stored within living biomass in European forests. It is possibly more concerning that forest removal may also threaten the storage of carbon below ground. These high-latitude forests support some of the largest soil carbon stock on Earth. If forest clearing threatens the integrity of high-latitude soil carbon stocks, then the climate impacts may be stronger than previously expected.” 

Forests offset about 10% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the areas harvested are likely to be replanted and the growth will continue to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a recent study that found that the climate crisis is driving the shift towards younger and shorter trees in forested ecosystems places doubt on the ability of these forests to continue to offset this volume of carbon dioxide in the long term.

Featured image by: Hans Permana

Anthropogenic climate change is having a profound effect on forest dynamics worldwide, a new study finds. Rising temperatures and increasing CO2 emissions, in combination with extreme weather events and deforestation that are all accelerating the climate crisis, are driving the shift towards younger and shorter trees in forested ecosystems, presenting worrying consequences for both the carbon storage capacity and biodiversity of the world’s forests.

In order to evaluate how the climate crisis and other disturbances affect tree populations worldwide, researchers focused on determining the response of forests to longer term climatic changes, as well as short-lived disturbances, and combined these findings with global land-use change and disturbance data-sets. 

Nate McDowell, who led the study at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, describes how “Over the last hundred years we have lost a lot of old forests” and emphasises that “They’ve been replaced in part by non-forests and in part by young forests. This has consequences on biodiversity, climate mitigation, and forestry.”

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Forest dynamics are governed by three primary processes, namely recruitment – the rate at which seedlings are added to a population, growth – the rate of biomass production, and mortality – the loss of a plant’s reproductive ability. Other natural disturbances such as wildfires and droughts, as well as land-use changes, interact with these processes, which ultimately alters biomass and species composition.

Europe and much of the Americas are already witnessing these shifts towards younger and shorter forests, where analysis reveals that over the past 40 years, tree mortality rates have doubled. Tom Pugh, a scientist from the University of Birmingham who was involved with the analysis, highlights how unnaturally young and short forests occupy much of the UK and Europe, he says “They are not of the stature that many of those forests would have been before humans fundamentally changed them by harvesting at regular intervals and planting new species.”

The study found that the percentage of trees younger than 140 years old has increased from 11% of forested area in 1900 to 34% in 2015, as a direct result of land use changes and wood harvesting. Due to limited data, researchers were unable to confidently estimate how much shorter trees have become.

Impact of Climate Change on Forests

Increases in temperature is one driver of tree mortality as it causes the stomata of plants to close whilst limiting the process of photosynthesis, vital for plant growth. This not only causes greater levels of tree mortality but also hinders regeneration. This causes larger plants to die, with those replacing them being smaller in size. 

The effect of CO2 on forest dynamics is slightly more complex. Higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere can actually trigger growth in young forests, as long as there is an abundance of nutrients. Where forests have insufficient access to nutrients and water, the benefit of increased CO2 emissions isn’t as pronounced. Some of the studies analysed suggest that increases in atmospheric COmay actually increase tree mortality rates.

As well as these longer term changes in climate and CO2 concentrations, forests are constantly being threatened by a number of extreme weather events, made more frequent and severe due to anthropogenic climate change, as well as deforestation. Whilst the different disturbances have varying impacts on forest dynamics, the overall trend is that tree mortality is consistently increasing, causing plants to be both shorter and younger.

Whilst recruitment and growth rates are expected to vary over time as well as geographically, the evidence suggests tree mortality rates will continue to increase in the future resulting in reduced forest canopy cover and biomass. There is however some uncertainty surrounding several feedback mechanisms, triggered by climate change and other disturbances, which could help to mitigate these changes to forest dynamics. These mechanisms include the ability of forests to adjust to changes in climate, adapt to a range of biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors and to migrate in response to changing climatic and environmental conditions.

Why are forests important for mitigating climate change?

Forests act as a vital carbon sink for greenhouse gas emissions, however shifting forest dynamics pose serious implications for the total terrestrial carbon storage available. Increased plant mortality, along with limited recruitment or growth, significantly reduces the carbon storage potential since younger forests aren’t able to store as much carbon as older forests. This raises additional challenges to the global effort of tackling the climate crisis. 

In a study published in March, scientists made the concerning discovery that intact tropical forests absorbed 46 billion tonnes of carbon in the 1990s but by 2010, this had decreased by a third to 25 billion tonnes. Critically, forests absorbed 17% of human induced carbon dioxide emissions in the 1990s, compared to just 6% in 2010, highlighting the worrying trend of reduced carbon storage capacity of the world’s forests, where they could move from being sinks of carbon to sources of carbon. 

Professor Simon Lewis at University College London sheds some more optimistic light on this research as he explains: “Because old-growth forest is being lost, then on average, across the globe, forests are getting shorter and younger. Yet, counter to this, and what the researchers don’t highlight is that within many old-growth forests the opposite is happening.” He argues that: “The world’s intact tropical and boreal forests are both globally important as carbon sinks, and are getting larger.” 

He also raises the crucial point that ‘the world’s forests currently slow the climate crisis, and while future mortality trends could reverse this, the ideas in the new report don’t change what the world needs to do: stabilise the climate by quickly driving fossil fuel emissions to zero and protect the world’s forests’.

This study raises greater awareness and understanding of the impacts of the climate crisis and environmental disturbances on the dynamics of forests. The authors make the recommendation that ‘forest management must ultimately confront the elevated mortality and uncertainty in recruitment and growth when considering options for sustaining the societal benefits of forests into the future’. Thus the findings from this study should be used as a critical step forward in effectively managing the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on forests now and in the future. 

A new study has shown that campaigns to plant large numbers of trees could have the opposite intended effect and may threaten natural forests, illustrating the need to analyse and reassess subsidies in such schemes. 

The research, published in Nature Sustainability, reveals how initiatives like the global Trillion Trees campaign and others that are under consideration by the US Congress could lead to more biodiversity loss with little climate change mitigation. However, the researchers say that these efforts could prove useful if they include strong subsidy restrictions, such as banning the replacement of native forests with tree plantations.  

Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and co-author of the study, says, “If policies to incentivise tree plantations are poorly designed or poorly enforced, there is a high risk of not only wasting public money but also releasing more carbon and losing biodiversity.”

Forests are undoubtedly a way to slow biodiversity loss and mitigate the climate crisis through its carbon sequestering abilities, and tree-planting has gained a lot more attention in recent years with ambitious commitments, such as the Bonn Challenge, which seeks to restore an area of forest more than eight times the size of California by 2030, and Trillion Trees, which, as the name suggests, seeks to plant a trillion trees. 

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Negative Effects of Planting Trees

However, these initiatives have deep flaws. Nearly 80% of commitments to the Bonn Challenge involve planting monoculture tree plantations or a limited mix of trees that produce products such as fruit and rubber rather than actually restoring natural forests. These plantations typically have less potential for carbon sequestering, habitat creation and erosion control than natural forests. These potential harms are further amplified if planted trees replace natural forests, grasslands or savannas that have evolved to support local biodiversity.

The researchers also looked at subsidies designed to encourage private landowners to plant trees. Specifically, the scientists looked at Chile’s Decree Law 701, one of the world’s longest running and most influential afforestation subsidy laws in effect from 1974 to 2012, which is currently being considered for reintroduction. We must reflect on the environmental and economic impact of past policies that might occur when paying landowners (who often have their own agendas) to establish these tree plantations.

The law subsidised 75% of afforestation costs and provided support for ongoing plantation management. However, careless enforcement and budgetary limitations failed to address prohibitions on the use of subsidies on already-forested lands, leading to situations in which the government unintentionally subsidised the replacement of native forests with profitable tree plantations. The subsidies further reduced native forest cover by encouraging plantations on shrublands or marginal agricultural lands where forests might have naturally generated. 

Further, the researchers calculated the effects of the subsidies on net carbon and biodiversity changes across the country. They found that relative to a scenario of no subsidies, afforestation payments expanded the area covered by trees, but decreased the area of native forests. This shows that the subsidies failed to increase carbon storage and further accelerated biodiversity losses, since Chile’s native forests are more carbon dense and biodiverse than plantations. In this way, schemes to plant trees may actually threaten natural forests.

Cristian Echeverría, a professor at the University of Concepción in Chile and coauthor of the study, says, “Nations should design and enforce their forest subsidy policies to avoid the undesirable ecological impacts that resulted from Chile’s program. Future subsidies should seek to promote the recovery of the many carbon and biodiversity-rich natural ecosystems that have been lost.”

The 1950’s were known as the Great Acceleration which was marked by profound human transformation of the planet. Forests have declined rapidly since the Great Acceleration due to industrialisation, urbanisation and land degradation, particularly in South Asia. There are almost 16 different forest types in the region which vary from tropical rainforest to coastal mangroves. With the population of South Asia set to grow to 2 billion in 2050 from 1.8 billion today, how can South Asia ensure the survival of its forests?

The graph below shows forest area as a share of land in South Asia from 2000 to 2015, which excludes agricultural production systems. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are seeing a gradual decrease in forest cover while India has seen a gradual increase in forest cover. Only Bhutan has seen a small increase in overall forest cover.

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south asia forests
A graph showing various countries in South Asia and their forests as share of land area (Source: Our World in Data).

India

India is the 6th largest country in the world and has 4 types of forests: tropical forests, subtropical, temperate and alpine. Since the early 1950’s the country has been increasing its afforestation and reforestation efforts and consequently, the country has increased forest cover by 70.5% between 1950 and 2006; there are now more mangrove forests and forests in hill districts.

In 1952, the country set a target to have 33% of its land under forest cover, however this is currently at 21.54%. Ajay Narayan Jha, the secretary of the ministry of environment forest and climate change, wants to convert open, moderate and degraded forests into dense forests to improve the quality of existing forests. 

The overall increase in forestry in India is attributed to both conservation efforts and better satellite data, however a research paper states that the figures ‘ignore’ the ground realities of India’s situation – by including commercial plantations which are largely monoculture and should not be counted as an increase in India’s forest cover. This could mean that India’s actual forestry numbers are far less than the official counts. Additionally, within the country, there are massive differences in forestry among states with Andhra Pradesh and Kerala recording increases in forest cover while the North-Eastern states of India are recording India’s largest rates of forest cover decline. This is attributed to cultivation and development activities.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, with 163 million people living on a delta plain bordering the Bay of Bengal. As a consequence of this, only 6% of Bangladesh is forested, paling in comparison to the rest of South Asia. Over 50% of Bangladesh’s forests have been deforested in only the last 20 years, which can be mainly attributed to the massive increase in urbanisation and agriculture. Further, illegal sand mining is prevalent in the country, which is an extremely destructive process that has been linked to floods in Kerala. For Bangladesh this illegal practice has led to a sharp decline in river bodies and forests; when sand and minerals are illegally extracted, river banks become unstable and collapse during times of heavy rain or monsoons season, affecting water quality. The Sundarbans is a 10 000 sq km mangrove forest which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been badly affected by sand mining and deforestation. 

This mangrove forest environment is crucial to protecting Bangladesh’s coastline from tropical storms. Additionally, conflict in Myanmar has led to the large-scale movement of refugees entering Bangladesh through Cox’s Bazaar. This mass migration has forced Bangladesh to build security outposts in the region, however, these have been built on protected forestry land. The government has also drained and filled wetlands to create settlements to relieve the overpopulation crisis which has hampered the country’s forest preservation efforts. Bangladesh is in a difficult position as the country will need to find a balance between relieving its overcrowding crisis in urban areas while conserving forests.

The rise of aquaculture in Bangladesh has also contributed to the decline in forests; in 2013, there was an estimated 8.3% loss in forest cover, partly because land was cleared to make way for shrimp farms.

Sri Lanka

Between 1990 and 2005, Sri Lanka had the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Deforestation is attributed mainly to the rise of the plantation sector, particularly for coconut production.  However, since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has made significant progress in protecting and preserving its forests, with 22 national parks and a newly-added UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2015, the country declared all mangrove forests to be protected by law. The country also plans to quadruple the size of the Sinharaja Rainforest to 36 000 hectares, which is the country’s only UNESCO Heritage Site- listed rainforest with over 50% of the country’s endemic species and 60% of endemic trees  found in this rainforest. The country hopes to utilise the forest’s bufferzone and incorporate nearby defragmented forests into the rainforest

However, this progress was marred when the state built a second international airport inside a bird sanctuary in 2013 in the south of the country. This project, along with two expressways which run through many sensitive environmental areas, was seen as a major setback in the government’s promise towards environmental protection. Although the state has been paramount in setting out legislation, it has been the work of grassroot community action which has spearheaded Sri Lanka’s protection of forests. There are women-led initiatives that cultivate mangrove ecosystems which allow for the careful fishing of prawns which reside in mangrove ecosystems. Other citizen-led groups, such as Reforest Sri Lanka, have been planting trees in neglected areas such as abandoned tea estates. Despite the failings of the government to protect its forests, citizen-led groups have been educating, preserving and protecting Sri Lanka’s natural environments. 

Bhutan

Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country, which means it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces. This small mountainous country is 80.9% forested– the highest rate of forest cover in South Asia. Almost 51.4% of the country’s area is designated as natural parks and sanctuaries. The country enforces strict environmental policies such as ensuring that 60% of the country remains forested; this is also contained in the country’s constitution. Such policies fall under the country’s four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which has helped the country concentrate on conservation and forestry. GNH is the measure of economic and moral progress of Bhutan, which differs from the typical practice of focusing on economic indicators. However the country’s rigid environmental policy has been criticised as rural communities continue to lose livestock due to the protection of snow leopards (however, the government compensates farmers for killed livestock by). 

Bhutan’s efforts should be commended both in South Asia and globally. The country’s stern environmental laws have allowed it to protect and maintain its forests, setting a precedent for the rest of the world.

South Asia is fast developing economically and is experiencing rapid population growth. If countries in South Asia are to combat global warming, they will have to work together to protect forests which transcend national boundaries such as the Sundurbans and forests on the Himalayas. Although environmental progress has been slow, concern for the environment is becoming an important macroeconomic objective of South Asian governments and with the rise of citizen-led groups and the involvement of communities, the fight for South Asia’s forests remains far from over. 

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. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe and is showing little sign of dissipating, with fresh outbreaks being reported in Latin America, including Brazil. Now, health experts are saying that rampant deforestation, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon, could bring about a new pandemic.

Since it arrived in Brazil, COVID-19 has divided the nation. One side calls for strict social isolation measures to contain the virus, while the other says that everyone should get back to work now, except for the elderly and most vulnerable.

These conflicting views are evident even in the heart of the government. President Jair Bolsonaro in a recent television broadcast declared that hysteria has gripped the country over a disease that he calls “no worse than a mild flu.” His Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, disputes that, telling Brazilians to stay home.

Misinformation is rife. Rumors proliferate on social media, particularly regarding the number of deaths, while the government discredits the mainstream press, as it tries to report the rapidly developing pandemic and inform the public.

This scenario is not new. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro and his administration have smeared scientists trying to alert the population over the risks of global warming, or critical of the undermining of federal environmental regulations and agencies. In the first half of 2019, there were conflicting reports within the government itself and among scientists and NGOs about the scale and seriousness of deforestation and, later in the year, regarding the extent of Amazon fires and their close link to major forest clearing.

However, behind all this raucous debate, it is becoming clear to experts that COVID-19 and deforestation in the Amazon could be linked — both being products of the natural and human devastation brought by an invasion of the world’s remaining forests through the rapid expansion of timber harvesting, mineral extraction, industrial agribusiness and transportation infrastructure.

Even as the outbreak of COVID-19 is being possibly linked to the wildlife trade and humanity’s destruction of biodiversity, researchers say that the growing momentum of Amazon deforestation is creating conditions for the eruption of future pandemics.

Indeed, there are signs that this may already be happening.

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Deforestation Roars Ahead, Risking Rise of New Diseases

In 2019, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached its highest level in ten years (9,762 square kilometers, or 3,769 square miles). Importantly, in protected indigenous reserves, it increased even faster, expanding by 74 percent in 2019 under Bolsonaro as compared to 2018. Amazon deforestation rates continue escalating in 2020, doubling from August 2019 to March 2020, compared with the same period in 2018-19.

That’s not only bad news for wildlife and indigenous peoples. It is well understood among scientists that major deforestation can lead to the emergence of dangerous new viruses and bacteria against which humanity has little defense, leading to epidemics and pandemics.

“Wild vertebrates, particularly rodents, bats and primates, harbor pathogens that are novel to the human immune system and, if we clear their habitat and put ourselves in closer contact with them, we can increase the risk that a spillover event occurs, introducing a novel pathogen,” Andy MacDonald, an ecologist specializing in disease at the Institute of Geosciences at the University of California, told Mongabay.

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London (UCL), part of London University, says that researchers have long known that animal-borne infectious diseases are an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies.” In 2008, she was part of a research team that determined that at least 60% of the 335 new diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 originated with non-human animals.

One of the principal drivers of this transfer of diseases from wild animals to humans occurs as the result of habitat disturbance — especially the disruption of tropical forests.

“Approximately one in three outbreaks of new and emerging illnesses is linked to changes in land use, like deforestation,” explained Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a not-for-profit organization based in New York. Daszak was lead author in a study entitled “Infectious disease emergence and economics of altered landscapes” published last year. That paper notes that “diseases causally linked to land change use include deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika Virus.” Preliminary research indicates we can now likely add COVID-19 to that list — the most devastating pandemic to strike humanity since the 1918-19 flu which killed upwards of 50 million people.

One way deforestation leads to the emergence of new diseases is through fire. In mid-August 2019, a group of international experts on zoonotic diseases (that is, illnesses transmitted from animals to humans), met in Colombia to analyze the impact of the wildfires then underway in the Amazon. In their statement, they warned: “The Amazon region of Brazil, endemic for many communicable or zoonotic diseases can, after a wildfire, trigger a selection for survival, and with it change the habitat and behaviors of some animal species. These can be reservoirs of zoonotic bacteria, viruses, and parasites.”

This wildfire scenario has already played out elsewhere. In 1988, huge fires in Indonesia created conditions allowing the emergence of the Nipah virus, which has a morbidity rate of between 40% and 70%. Researchers believe that the outbreak of fires there caused fruit bats to flee their forest homes, seeking food in orchards. Then pigs ate the fruit that the bats had nibbled, becoming infected with the virus, ultimately infecting local people, who began to die from brain hemorrhages. Amazon fires are expected to grow far worse, as agribusiness uses it as a tool to clear rainforest, and as climate change intensifies drought there.

Fever Follows in Wake of Environmental Ruin

In fact, there are already Brazilian examples of a major environmental disruption provoking disease. One such incident concerns the bursting of the Mariana iron mining tailings dam on the Doce River in Minas Gerais state in 2015, which killed 19 people and was regarded at the time as the most serious environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.

Biologist Márcia Chame, from Fiocruz, a foundation specializing in the science and technology of health, believes that a major surge in yellow fever cases in Minas Gerais in 2016-17, leading to the state government decreeing a state of emergency, was partly the result of the disaster which polluted 500 miles of river all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Chame argues that the bursting of the dam, which led to “an avalanche of 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mine waste,” pouring into the Doce River, severely affected animals in the surrounding watershed, making them less resistant to disease.

“An abrupt change in the environment will have an impact on animals, including monkeys. With the stress of the disaster and the lack of food, they become more susceptible to illnesses, including yellow fever.” Chame says that many monkeys in the Doce watershed fell ill with yellow fever. Those monkeys were then bitten by mosquitoes, who in turn bit humans, bringing the disease to the region’s towns. According to her, mosquitoes — particularly Haemagogus leucocelaenus and H. janthinomys — were “driven by landscape modifications, with forest fragments running in peri-urban areas, allowing enough interaction [between monkeys, mosquitos and people] to produce such an epidemic.”

Similar processes may well be underway in the Amazon, though going mostly unexamined and undetected. A study published last year, entitled “Development, environmental degradation and disease spread in the Brazilian Amazon” concluded that “too little attention has focused on the emergence and reemergence of vector-borne diseases that directly impact the local population, with spillover effects on other neighboring areas.”

Severe forest disturbance is already known to contribute to the expansion of known diseases like malaria, says MacDonald. “The primary mosquito vector in Latin America does really well in recently cleared patches of forest, on the margins of the remaining forest (where there is more standing water for breeding, higher temperatures which can facilitate faster development of the mosquito and malaria parasite, as well as increase human biting rates). With people settled in these cleared patches… it can increase malaria transmission.”

Comparing satellite images and health data, MacDonald, together with Erin Mordecai from Stanford University, determined that deforestation in the whole of the Amazon Basin has helped lead to a significant increase in malaria. MacDonald told Mongabay that the research team calculated that in 2008 a 10% rise in deforestation, that is, about 1,600 square kilometers (618 square miles) of additional forest cut, led to a 3.3% increase in malaria transmission. That amounted to an additional 9,980 cases across the region.

Bolsonaro Paves the Way for More Deforestation

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Brazilian Congress now stands ready to vote, turning a temporary 120-day Provisional Measure decreed by Bolsonaro in December 2019, into permanent law. Provisional Measure (MP) 910, instead of curbing illegal land invasions, rewards land grabbers who illegally felled forest on public lands in Amazonia before December 2018 — regularizing their illegal occupation by allowing the purchase of the property at greatly reduced prices, turning it from public to private. Essentially, the measure allows land grabbers to break the law and get away with it.

According to a technical note issued by the not-for-profit organization, IMAZON, the MP could lead to the deforestation of up to 16,000 square kilometers (6,178 square miles) by 2027, an area ten times larger than the area that led to an increase of nearly ten thousand new cases of malaria in the MacDonald study.

Under the present terms of MP 910, authorities are not required to check the validity of any claim made by a potential landowner for properties under 2,500 hectares (6,166 acres) in size — a stipulation that supposedly benefits small-scale farmers.

But Amazon land grabbers are extremely skilled at bypassing such regulatory limits. One very common practice is to utilize laranjas (literally oranges, but more accurately, stooges). The big landowners get relatives, friends or employees to register a small plot in their names, avoiding federal oversight. Later, the laranjas hand the property over to the land grabber, sometimes in exchange for a small payment.

If a landowner employs 20 laranjas, each registering a plot of 2,500 hectares (6,166 acres), he ends up with a property of 50,000 hectares (111,000 acres). Another worrying consequence is that land grabbers can seize land occupied by indigenous communities who lack deeds, as is happening with the Sateré-Mawe indigenous group in Amazonas state.

MP 910 also allows those who have already benefited from the regularization of invaded public lands, but who have sold that property, to join the queue again requesting a new plot. Although she recognizes the need to sort out the current anarchy over landownership in the Amazon, Suely Araujo, former president of IBAMA, the government’s environmental agency, is critical of the MP. “With this flexibility, and without separating big landowners from small ones, this law legalizes those who live from land invasion, deforestation and the sale of public land,” she told Mongabay.

On March 27, Minister Alexandre Moraes, a member of the Federal Supreme Court, Brazil’s court of last resort, issued a preliminary ruling for facilitating the approval of Provisional Measures. Even though the intention is to fast-track urgent measures during the COVID-19 crisis, environmentalists fear that the ruralist lobby will take advantage of this new procedure to push ahead more energetically with their agenda. “If there isn’t a political decision to withdraw MP 910 from the measures to be voted through, we run the risk of a serious environmental reverse during this [health] crisis,” warned Araújo.

Greater Risks Ahead

Even as Brazilian deforestation rates soar, and land use laws in the Amazon basin are undermined, indigenous peoples across Latin America are trying to draw attention to the gravity of the global environmental crisis, which they believe caused the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Coronavirus is telling the world what indigenous peoples have been saying for thousands of years — if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this, and even worse threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, an indigenous man from Costa Rica at a press conference organized by Covering Climate Now in New York City in mid-March.

Another indigenous leader at that meeting, Dinamam Tuxá, coordinator of APIB (the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), was just as vehement: “The cure for the next pandemic, and even for this one, can be found in the biodiversity in our indigenous lands,” he argued. “This is why we need to protect our lands and rights, because the future of life depends on it.” In contrast, Bolsonaro is pushing legislation through Congress that would allow large-scale mining, oil and gas drilling, and industrial agribusiness within Brazil’s indigenous reserves, largely without input from the people living there.

Experts continue warning urgently that more pandemics lie ahead. “I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, told Scientific American. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.”

John Scott, head of Sustainability Risk with the Zurich Insurance Group, referring to the Ebola, SARS, MERS, and other recent epidemics, offers a similar message: “The past 20 years of disease outbreaks could be viewed as a series of near-miss catastrophes, which have led to complacency rather than the increased vigilance necessary to control outbreaks.”

Climate Change, Deforestation, Successive Pandemics

Scientists were not startled by the COVID-19 pandemic; they’d been warning the world about such an event for decades. Similarly, many won’t be surprised if the much neglected climate crisis reaches a point of no return, with far more serious impacts for the world — including massive Amazon tree die off and huge atmosphere-destabilizing carbon releases, driven not only by policies favorable to land grabbers, but due to a drastic decline in Amazon rainfall and an increase in fires. Indeed, many say that these multiple crises are intertwined.

One great challenge of the post-COVID-19 world will require that civilization somehow recover from the global economic recession (or depression) it causes without further aggravating the climate crisis via the mass conversion of forests to gold, zinc and bauxite mines, or to cattle ranches and soy plantations. The danger: if tropical deforestation continues out of control, we may barely recover from one pandemic before being faced by another.

The next plague could arise nearly anywhere: in the increasingly disrupted Amazon, the Congo, Indonesia, or even far beyond the tropical zone, in the Arctic, where permafrost is melting rapidly, possibly thawing out unknown and dormant viruses that could unleash the next planetwide health crisis. In this sense, COVID-19 — horrific as its outcomes could be — may only be a harbinger of far worse pandemics to come.

Featured image by: quapan

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

Earth.Org analysed satellite data to assess the changes in vegetation and land cover in the Mu Us desert in North-western China from 1985 to 2018. Images from Google Earth Engine were used to illustrate the changes in this 42 000 sq km area. 

China is severely affected by desertification, a process caused by arable land and grassland degradation, and in the context of global warming, the expansion of erosion-induced drylands. More than a quarter of the country is covered in desert, with degraded land spanning 8- 10 million kms of the country and responsible for economic losses amounting to US$ 6.9 billion a year. 

As a result of this degradation, the desert area is expanding at a rate of 2100 kms every year, affecting nearly 400 million people in China. Winds blow the sand towards neighbouring land which envelopes the fertile soil, degrading its fertility by shutting off its water and air supply.

A study conducted by Wang et. al in 2017 said that while the key driving forces of desertification in arid Asia (Northeast Asia to Central and West Asia) are poorly misunderstood, the Mu Us desert is an area where human activity is usually considered to be a key driving force of desertification. 

The Mu Us desert used to be grazing land; the climate is wetter than most deserts in the world, with annual precipitation of 440mm in the southeast, and 250mm in the west. Therefore, it is an area of interest in China’s curbing of desertification as the desert has suitable conditions for vegetation rehabilitation. 

The images below coincide with policies implemented from 1999 to convert farming land back to forest and grazing land back to grassland. Additionally, the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Project started in 1979 consisted of a series of human-planted windbreaking forest strips in China designed to hold back the expansion of the Gobi Desert. 

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Mu Us Desert Map: Afforestation in Yulin

The image above shows the changes of Yulin, a city at the southern edge of the desert, and surroundings in 1985, 2001 and 2018. Urban areas have been expanded, and the neighbouring lands are almost completely covered with vegetation. The grey area is the city of Yulin. Other dark green patches are trees or bushes and the bright yellow is moving sand, while the dimmer yellow is sand covered with herbs. In the 2018 picture, the darkest green on the west and northwest of Yulin are forests. 

People living in Yulin, as well as Beijing and Hebei, are reporting less sandstorm weather; Mu Us is a major sand source powering the sandstorms in Beijing. 

The featured image illustrates afforestation efforts in the Mu Us desert. Bright yellow areas illustrate sand and dark brownish-green areas are vegetation. The surrounding areas are significantly greener. 

China has been working to control this process of degradation, which can be blamed on a combination of environmental and human factors, with several projects working on measures including afforestation, a process involving planting trees in barren lands so as to create forests. According to Wang et. al’s study, high levels of desertification occurred in the 1970s, and from the early 2000s to the present, rehabilitation has occurred in most regions of arid Asia, especially in China. 

To optimise these afforestation programmes, a study conducted by Lu et. al in 2015 suggested choosing species of plants with the maximum water-use efficiency that could alleviate the conflict between environmental water needs and human needs. Specifically, project managers should seek to restore the natural grassland vegetation in arid and semiarid areas. However, this may prove difficult in afforestation areas where trees have already lowered the water table to the point where the vegetation will struggle to survive. The study also notes the importance of developing optimised groundwater use schemes to use the resource sustainably.

Another strategy that China has employed in controlling desertification includes the straw checkerboard method, used for fixing sand dunes. Straws of wheat, rice, reeds, and other materials are placed in the shape of a checkerboard. Half is buried in the sand and the other half is exposed. The straw decreases the wind velocity near the ground surface and can prevent wind erosion of the soil. In regions where the annual precipitation is over 200 mm, bushes and herbs can be planted to further improve the windbreak and sand dune fixation qualities. After establishment, the straw gradually rots to become organic soil matter.

China continues to show its commitment to curbing the potentially devastating and far-reaching effects of desertification through various projects that aim to not only rehabilitate degraded land, but empower communities and ensure the long-term economic growth of the territory. 

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