A new study is looking into forests’ ability to sequester CO2 and reveals their enormous potential in mitigating excess emissions in the atmosphere. The research called Integrated Global Assessment of the Natural Forest Carbon Potential is led by the Crowther Lab at ETH Zürich and co-authored by more than 200 scientists across the globe.
According to the study, protecting current forests and restoring forests that have been deforested could capture 226 billion metric tons (GT) of carbon from the atmosphere, equating to one-third of excess emissions since industrialization began.
Intact forests left to reach old-growth maturity could potentially store around 61% of that amount. The rest remains to restoring degraded and deforested areas and connecting forest fragments in key areas.
The analysis uses extensive ground and satellite data to estimate the findings. The researchers compiled ground-sourced data from more than a million forest plots containing tree measurements. Using this plot data and environmental factors like climate, they built statistical models to estimate the capacity of natural aboveground forests to store carbon.
Then, they used existing satellite-based maps of global forest biomass and environmental factors to build similar statistical models of natural carbon storage potential. The models are built using both ground and satellite data.
“This research underlines how our first priority is to keep the remaining old-growth forests standing,” said Oliver Phillips, professor and chair in tropical ecology at the University of Leeds.
“Conserving forests, ending deforestation and empowering people who live in association with those forests has the power to capture 61% of our potential… That’s huge. It’s potentially reframing forest conservation. [Protecting forests is] no longer avoided emissions, it’s massive carbon drawdown, too,” commented for The Guardian senior author Tom Crowther, a professor of ecology at ETH Zürich.
Mr Crowther also expressed his stance against misusing the findings to avoid reducing fossil fuel use. Protecting current forests or reforestation could not be used as compensation for continuing to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as the study also suggests. Planting a forest that stores carbon over time, cannot compensate for the enormous harm on the environment and human health, for example, that the emissions from a fossil fuel power plant cause.
He also stressed that if emitting continues along with planting trees/ protecting forests, those trees will still die due to the increasing risks of climate change like droughts and wildfires.
“We are collectively saying forests offer incredible potential, but not for greenwashing or offsetting guilt, and not without cutting emissions,” added Mr Crowther.