By Stephen Leahy
Dec 3 (IPS) – Expanding European forests absorbed 126 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from 1990 to 2005 — equivalent to 11 percent of European Union emissions from human activities — while a U.N. target to plant one billion trees mainly in Africa has been surpassed.
“Forests reduced carbon dioxide more than twice the amount of Europe’s renewable energy programmes,” said Pekka Kauppi, who led the University of Helsinki study, published in the British journal Energy Policy on Nov. 29.
Better conservation, migration to cities, and conversion of surplus farmland are the reasons behind the growing and expanding forests, which are mainly in Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Finland Kauppi, told IPS. The study is based on forestry statistics provided by governments and that were not independently verified.
The resulting “surprisingly high carbon dioxide removal” may be the major factor in Europe achieving its ambitious target of 20 percent reductions in greenhouse targets by 2020, Kauppi said.
“On a global scale, there is hope for the future if we stop deforestation and expand forests,” he added.
For that reason, carbon credits should be given to standing forests, which would offer countries and forest owners additional financial incentives for conservation, he said.
However, there is intense disagreement on this issue.
“Forests are a band-aid,” said Mike Flannigan, a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service. “Eventually, forests die, releasing all that stored carbon into the atmosphere.”
“Forests are carbon-neutral over the long term,” Flannigan told IPS.
Growing forests can be “carbon sinks”, soaking up additional carbon from the atmosphere for 60 or more years until they reach maturity. But no one knows how long a tree planted today will live. Weather, disease, fires and other factors can shorten the life of any tree.
Illustrating the complex factors involved, one day after Kauppi’s study was released, researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands reported that a drop in atmospheric nitrogen deposition will slow down forest growth, resulting in 27 percent less carbon sequestration (removal) than current levels. Pollution control measures are reducing nitrogen emissions to improve air quality. Trees need nitrogen and carbon to grow.
Canada’s forests have become enormous sources of CO2, mainly due to the rapid spread of an insect pest called the mountain pine beetle and record-breaking fires in recent years. Both the fires and the beetle infestation appear to be consequences of climate change itself, warming and drying forests in western Canada.
“Higher surface temperatures dramatically increase evaporation rates, leaving forests tinder dry,” Flannigan said.
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