Contrary to what we have believed for years about how cutting down trees en masse leads to deforestation and climate degradation, a recent finding suggests that a rising global demand for timber and simultaneous incentives for landowners could in fact help increase forests.
In projections spanning 90 years from 2015 to 2105, the researchers predicted that forests would largely remain a carbon sink, meaning they would always absorb more carbon than they would release.
The science and other stuff to know
The study published in the journal Global Environmental Change bases its findings on policies that could make forest plantation a highly incentivized endeavor for landowners.
“Growth in demand for timber products from the energy sector, in combination with a carbon price incentive, create unique complementary effects where you’re using biomass for energy, investing in more forests, and increasing the forest carbon sink globally,” said Justin Baker, a co-author and associate professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State and director of the Southern Forest Resource Assessment Consortium.
For their analysis, the researchers developed 81 models to study how changes in policy could impact forest cover and carbon sequestration i.e. the process of capture and long-term storage of carbon dioxide. The models included aspects like “deforestation taxes, paying landowners to store carbon dioxide in forests and promoting the use of biomass for energy”, according to a press release.
What they found was that in models with high timber demand, greenhouse emissions were low. Furthermore, the models in which the government compensated landowners for storing carbon in trees indicated an increase in forestland cover. In contrast, forest acreage decreased in situations where climate change regulations are less stringent, global greenhouse gas emissions are high, and demand for timber products is low due to slower economic growth.
Trees are essential to the existence of the planet and that of the life that inhabits it. They have varied purposes, including maintaining the temperature of an ecosystem, shade and shelter for birds and animals, and provision of fruits of various shapes and uses. They also make for a perfect control mechanism to limit soil erosion, and they are one of the greatest sources of storage of carbon dioxide on the planet.
And the study just confirms, with data and reasoning, a simple rule of demand and supply. If producing a good is profitable, a producer will grow more of it. The models project just that. The only way to anticipate the existing world forest cover to rise is if demand for wood products increased dramatically and the government provided enough incentives to landowners to make forest clearing and tree cutting for agriculture an economically loss-making endeavor.
Trees are a key weapon in humanity’s fight against climate change and the integrated assessment models developed by scientists in their study suggest that future “forest climate mitigation policies should be complemented by incentives to enhance demand for forest products and biomass”.
They added that there were many more factors to be considered in subsequent research, suggesting that integrated assessment models needed to specifically analyze “forest-specific outcomes” of mitigation and adaptation policies across model frameworks.
But with the models so far predicting that tree felling could actually increase the forest cover, the prediction does sound like a wonderful case of eating your cake and having it too.