Forest Carbon Coalition – Science Synthesis

What role can forests play in mitigating the climate crisis?


The world’s forest lands have enormous potential to capture and store enough carbon dioxide to slow and eventually reverse the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere back towards the upper limit of 350 parts per million called for by the scientific community. There are three general pathways for mitigating climate change through changes in forest management.

Two of these involve planting tree seedlings to expand the acreage of land growing trees. Reforestation does so on lands where forests have recently been degraded or removed. Afforestation occurs through the planting of seedlings on lands that have not been previously forested. The third pathway, called proforestation, focuses on allowing existing trees to grow bigger. Remaining fragments of native, unlogged forests provide a benchmark for carbon storage targets that could be achieved in each forested region of the world by implementing these climate smart practices.

Key research on the climate mitigation potential of the world’s forests:

Houghton, R.A., Nassikas, A.A., 2017. Negative emissions from stopping deforestation and forest degradation, globally. Global Change Biology 24(1)

Link: https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13876

Summary: Avoiding further loss and degradation of primary forests and intact forest landscapes, and allowing degraded forests to naturally regrow, would reduce global carbon emissions annually by about one gigatonne or 1 Gt, and reduce another two to four Gt of carbon emissions through just allowing natural regrowth.
If greater negative emissions are to be realized, they will require an expansion of forest area, greater efficiencies in converting harvested wood to long‐lasting products and sources of energy, and novel approaches for sequestering carbon in soils.

Key excerpts:

  • “…we estimate that stopping deforestation and allowing secondary forests to grow would yield cumulative negative emissions between 2016 and 2100 of about 120 PgC, globally.”
  • “Extending the lifetimes of wood products could potentially remove another 10 PgC from the atmosphere, for a total of approximately 130 PgC, or about 13 years of fossil fuel use at today’s rate.”

Moomaw WR, Masino SA and Faison EK (2019). Intact forests in the United States: Proforestation mitigates climate change and serves the greatest good. Front. For. Glob. Change 2:27

Link: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00027/full

Summary: Letting forests grow towards their natural capacity to store carbon is one of the most cost effective climate solutions that also generates a wide array of co-benefits in the form of valuable ecosystem services.

Key excerpts:

  • “Proforestation is a climate smart strategy that involves letting existing forests grow to their ecological potential in terms of carbon storage and other ecosystem services.”
  • “Proforestation provides the most effective solution to dual global crises—climate change and biodiversity loss. It is the only practical, rapid, economical, and effective means for atmospheric carbon dioxide removal among the multiple options that have been proposed because it removes more atmospheric carbon dioxide in the immediate future and continues to sequester it long-term.”
  • “Practicing proforestation should be emphasized on suitable public lands as is now done in U.S. National Parks and Monuments.”