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Tropical Forests and Climate Change

John Roper
April 2001

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This FORESTRY ISSUES paper examines global climate change, its causes, its impact on forests, and how forests can help to mitigate it. More specifically, the paper looks at climate change that is a consequence of humankind's impact on the atmosphere.

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Are we experiencing climate change? Is the Earth's climate getting hotter or colder, wetter or drier? And if it is, what is the cause? What will be the impact? Can we adapt? Are catastrophic weather events of recent years, like the prolonged droughts in Africa and the many violent hurricanes in the Caribbean, indications of a real shift in the global climate?

For most of these questions there are no definitive answers, only educated speculation. Climate change predictions are difficult because of the complexity of the atmosphere and the interaction of the many variables involved.

The climate change referred to in this paper is the long-term change in the climate as a consequence of the atmosphere being altered by humankind's activity. Scientists predict there will be an increase in the Earth's average surface temperature, shifts in weather patterns, and more frequent extremes in weather events. Warmer temperatures will allow more moisture to be held in the atmosphere, resulting in more frequent and more severe storms. Coastal areas in the tropics will see more violent storms, hurricanes, and typhoons develop over the warm ocean currents. In contrast, arid regions like the Sahel that have experienced droughts in this century will likely become even more arid with rising air temperatures.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there has been an unprecedented warming trend during the 20th century. The current average global surface temperature of 15C is nearly 0.6C higher than it was a 100 years ago - most of the increase has been the consequence of human activity. Even though the 1990's were the warmest decade on record, the recent higher temperatures are very modest in comparison with the predictions for the coming years. Scientists now estimate that the average global surface temperature will rise another 1.4C to 5.8C by the end of the 21st century. Precipitation is also on the rise. In the northern hemisphere, precipitation has increase by 0.5% to 1.0% per decade whereas the increase in tropical countries has been 0.2% to 0.3% per decade.

The changes in the global climate have caused a reduction of the snow pack in northern latitudes, a melting of mountain glaciers, a thawing of the Arctic permafrost, and a shrinking of the polar ice caps. The average sea level of the world's oceans has risen 10 to 20 cm in the last century and is expected to rise up to 90 cm more in the next 100 years. River deltas that are currently being farmed and estuaries that are now important wildlife habitats will be flooded and become saline, making them unsuitable for these uses. Warmer ocean temperatures will have an impact on marine life, affecting their abundance and distribution. For example, with rising ocean temperatures the range of the Pacific salmon is expected to shift dramatically northwards, resulting in serious economic implications for commercial fishing.

In addition to anthropogenic-induced climate change, there are short-term variations in global temperatures that are associated with atmospheric disturbances resulting from solar activity, geological events like volcanic eruptions, or temporary shifts in ocean currents like the recent influences of El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific Ocean. The Earth's climate has a history of cycles of warmer periods be followed by cooler ones. One of the most dramatic examples of this cycle in recent history was the last glaciation period some 10,000 years ago when the average global temperature was 5C to 7C lower than our present temperature. More recently, there was a warm period from 900 to 1200 AD that was followed by a cooler period from 1300 to 1900 AD.

However, the principal concern today is that the present trend is not cyclical in nature; rather it is a long-term warming of the global climate. Since the early 1900s, a definite warming trend has been detected which is considered by scientists to be distinct from the cyclical variations that the Earth has experienced for millennia.


The Earth's climate is changing because the composition of our atmosphere is being altered, primarily as a consequence of human activity. The world's population continues to grow at an alarming rate with our numbers now exceeding six billion persons, a six-fold increase during the 20th century. Despite the fact that most of the world's people still live in unacceptable levels of poverty, our collective wealth is growing and with it there is a corresponding increase in demand for natural resources, energy, food, and goods to consume. In the process, we discharge vast quantities of gases and effluents that change the atmosphere's composition and its capacity to regulate its temperature.

Table 1 illustrates the main greenhouse gases that are related to land use. In addition to those mentioned in the table; water vapour and industrial emissions (in particular, nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone, sulphur dioxide, CFCs, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluorides) are generally very important as greenhouse gases, although they are not significant in terms of their impact on forests or forests' ability to mitigate climate change.

Greenhouse Gases Importance
to Climate
Trend in the
Land Use Related
sources of
Greenhouse Gases
carbon dioxide very high increasing; +30% in last 250 years mostly produced by deforestation and forest fires
methane moderate increasing; +145% in last 250 years generated by livestock waste, the decomposition of wetlands, and burning of biomass
nitrous oxide (N2O) moderate increasing; +15% in last 250 years caused by deforestation, burning of other biomass, and application of nitrogen fertilizer
carbon monoxide moderate increasing comes from the incomplete burning of pasture and grasslands

Source: modified from Ciesla, 1995

The consensus in the scientific community is that we are now also experiencing a non-cyclical rise in the global temperature caused by the accumulation of the so-called "greenhouse gases" --carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others. Energy received from the sun is absorbed as short wavelength radiation and is eventually returned to space as long wavelength infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases absorb the infrared radiation, trapping it in the atmosphere in the form of heat energy.

Climate Change Terms
  • additionality - emission reductions that are new and in addition to those which would have occurred anyway
  • afforestation - planting of trees on agricultural or other non-forest land
  • deforestation - permanent land use change from forests to other uses
  • greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other gases that modify the heat retention capacity of the Earth's atmosphere
  • GtC - 1 billion metric tons of carbon, equivalent to 3.7 billion tonnes of CO2
  • leakage - a reduction that causes an equivalent emission elsewhere
  • reforestation - planting or natural regeneration of forests after harvesting, fire, or other type of forest disturbance (perturbation)
  • reservoir - where sequestered atmospheric carbon is stored (e.g., forests)
  • sink - any process, activity, or mechanism that removes greenhouse gases
  • sequestration - the removal of carbon from the atmosphere
  • source - any process, activity, or mechanism that emits greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases are known to be increasing dramatically in the atmosphere, but estimates of the rate of increase, what are the important sources are, and their relative importance are still scientifically imprecise. The IPCC estimates that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is 31 percent higher than it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, 250 years ago. Most of this increase has occurred in the second half of the 20th century. For the next century, carbon dioxide levels will rise 90% to 250% over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Research suggests that the other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide will also continue to increase. Since greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere long after they have been emitted, it would take centuries (if ever) for the atmosphere to return to 1990 levels, even if all new emissions were eliminated tomorrow.

It is now widely accepted that the burning of fossil fuels is the most important source of green house gases. Coal and petroleum are the principal fuels for power generation, industry, and transportation, accounting for about 75 percent of all emissions. As the global economy has grown, there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of fossil fuels, witnessed most dramatically in the virtual revolution of the transportation sector. Cars and trucks have increased from a mere handful a hundred years ago to the tens of millions of vehicles currently on the road. Airline travel has gone from non-existent to thousands of flights per day. All of this change has been accompanied by a skyrocketing consumption of fossil fuels. As well, energy needs for heating and domestic cooking have not only increased with the growth in population, but also with the changes in technology. There has been a shift away from biomass fuels to more convenient, less expensive petroleum-based sources.

After the burning of fossil fuels, the most important sources of greenhouse gas emissions are activities related to land use, primarily tropical deforestation and forest fires. Currently, the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are estimated to be 7.5 billion tonnes of carbon annually, of which 1.5 to 1.8 billion tonnes comes from forest-related sources (although some accounts put the actual amounts higher). Greenhouse gases from deforestation are mostly carbon dioxide with lesser amounts of methane and carbon monoxide. This tropical deforestation is one of the most critical environmental problems facing the developing countries today in terms of its long-term, catastrophic impact on biodiversity, economic opportunities lost, social problems created, and contribution to global climate change.

After the burning of fossil fuels, the most important sources of greenhouse gas emissions are activities related to land use, primarily tropical deforestation and forest fires

How much forest is being lost annually to deforestation? The Food and Agriculture Orgnaization of the United Nations has estimated that the annual rates of deforestation in developing countries between 1980 and 1990 ranged from 13.7 million to 15.5 million hectares. With the clearing of forests on such a massive scale and the burning of most of the wood associated with them, there has been an enormous release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The above-ground biomass of tropical moist forests (those most subject to deforestation) is often more than 175 tonnes of carbon per hectare. When cleared and burned, much of this carbon ends up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Most of this loss in forest cover is the result of land clearing for agricultural use. Unlike forest fires that are burn and regenerate growth, deforestation destroys the forest as a "carbon reservoir" for the future because the land on which the trees grew is converted to other uses that have a lower carbon sequestration potential.

Agriculture also contributes to the build-up of greenhouse gases, particularly methane and nitrous oxides from livestock wastes, burning of pastures and crop residues, and the application of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Agricultural crops capture atmospheric carbon as part of photosynthesis, but due to the short-term nature of the crops, they have a very limited ability to store it. Carbon is quickly returned to the atmosphere through the digestion of the crops and the respiration of their residues. Roots and plant residues become part of the soil carbon cycle.

Table 2 illustrates the global carbon budget according to the currently accepted estimates for sources, sinks, and atmospheric accumulation.

GtC/year CO2 Sinks GtC/year Atmospheric
fossil fuel emissions and cement production 6.3(+/- 0.6) oceans 2.3(+/- 0.8) accumulation in the atmosphere 3.3(+/- 0.2)
emissions from land use change, mostly tropical deforestation 1.6(+/- 0.8) northern hemisphere forests 0.7(+/- 0.2)
other terrestrial sinks 1.6(+/- 1.3)
total 7.9 total 4.6 total 3.3

Source: modified from Ciesla, 1995; IPCC 2000

Some of the emissions of greenhouse gases are absorbed by so-called "carbon sinks," the most important of which are the oceans and forests. Like agricultural crops, forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere as part of photosynthesis. However, because trees have a much longer lifespan, they act as long -term reservoirs that lock up the carbon for decades, even centuries, in the form of cellulose and lignin. The carbon that is not captured by the sinks accumulates in the atmosphere.

The socioeconomic impact of climate change in Developing Countries will be significant. Rising temperatures and irregular precipitation patterns will impact negatively on agricultural crop yields, food security, and health issues related to malnutrition. An increased incidence and intensity of violent storms and monsoons will produce more flooding which in turn will cause greater infrastructure damage and an increase in the incidence of vector-borne (malaria) and water-borne (cholera) diseases. The least privileged in society are also the least equipped to adapt to climate change. Poverty, limited infrastructure, poor access to technology, inadequate education, and limited management skills; combine to frustrate the ability of Developing Countries to respond to the challenges.


What impact will climate change have on the world's forests and on the people who depend on them? Climate change will have a dramatic impact on the distribution of existing forests, the dominant land use of nearly 3,500 million hectares or 27 percent of the Earth's land area. The predicted rise in the atmospheric temperature will place severe pressure on the forests' ability to adapt and survive. With rising temperatures, changes in the availability of water, and an expected doubling of the carbon dioxide levels, it is expected that one-third of the forests worldwide will experience significant changes in species composition.

Trees are not equipped to adapt quickly to environmental changes because of their long maturation period and their inability to move from one locality to another. Species migration for trees can be as slow as a few metres per century. The predicted rise in the atmospheric temperature in North America by the end of the 21st century would result in a 150 km to 550 km shift northwards of climate boundaries for many of the existing forest ecosystems. Subsequently, we could see extensive dieback in many forest areas as conditions become unfavourable for their growth and survival. As a consequence, the volume of dead and dying stands of trees would significantly increase the incidence of fire, insect, and disease attacks, which in turn would have an impact on many forest ecosystems.

In order for existing forests to be replaced with more suitable or adaptable species, the present forests must die with consequent releases of further large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But this could result in the disappearance of entire forest types. The introduction of species previously not present could have profound implications for forest biodiversity and wildlife populations. The new forests that would take their place would have very different species compositions, ones that match the combination of seed availability, precipitation, temperature, growing season, and soil present at the time.

The forests of the higher latitudes will be more affected than those in the tropical and subtropical areas, but high-altitude mountain forests in the tropics will also be at risk. Like temperate and boreal forests, the tropical forests will undergo change as a consequence of any shift in growing conditions. This would challenge the ability of many species to survive, particularly on sites that are presently marginal for their growth. On the positive side, warmer temperatures, more precipitation, and more carbon dioxide will favour the growth and expansion of some forests.


In response to a growing concern and the mounting evidence of global climate change, the Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The objective of the convention is "to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." The convention is a statement of basic principles and a framework for subsequent action including the development of protocols where participating nations commit to specific actions.

The most significant protocol to date has been the Kyoto Protocol, tabled at the December 1997 meeting of the Third Conference of Parties in Kyoto, Japan. The Kyoto Protocol proposes to set legally binding commitments for emission reductions for the so-called Annex 1 countries (the developed countries and the Eastern European countries of the former Soviet Bloc) to levels relative to their 1990 levels. For the "commitment period" of 2008 - 2012, countries are meant to reduce their collective annual emissions by 5.2 percent below the 1990 benchmark levels, with allowable emissions based on each country's recent emission history. For most industrialized countries, this means reductions of 6 to 8 percent, while others with better emission records, like Australia, would be permitted to increase their emissions. According to the Protocol, the Non-Annex 1 countries (i.e., the developing countries) would be exempt. The Kyoto Protocol has not yet been ratified and does not become legally binding until it is.

It is indisputable that all countries have the right to develop and offer their citizens a better future, and it is only just that the industrialized countries that have generated most of the greenhouse gases pay most of the cost of any remedial measures. However, excluding any country, particularly the emerging economies of Asia, from meeting the emission reduction targets is a major shortcoming of the Kyoto Protocol. China, as an example, has emissions that exceed those of many of the industrialized nations.

The protocol identifies three possible "flexibility mechanisms" for countries to meet emission reduction targets: joint implementation, a clean development mechanism (CDM), and emission trading. Of particular interest to North-South cooperation is the CDM that would allow Annex 1 countries to receive emissions credits by implementing projects in non-Annex 1 countries that reduce emissions. CDM would allow for carbon sequestration and storage investments in reforestation, in afforestation, and in reducing deforestation to qualify as emission reductions credits by the investing countries. The theory behind this mechanism is that it does not matter where the emission reductions occur in the world for the global atmosphere to benefit. For example, a French energy utility could obtain emission reduction credits for France by establishing a tree plantation in Zambia as a carbon sink. "Sink enhancement" interventions related to improving the management of the existing forest resource are under consideration as part of CDM but have not been agreed to as yet.

The specific mechanics of how the instruments would work have not yet been defined and there is still some uncertainty about which forestry-related practices will eventually qualify under the Protocol. The exact meaning of terms like deforestation, afforestation, and reforestation -- terms well understood in forestry circles but subject to many interpretations outside them -- still need to be defined. Guidelines describing what constitutes good "carbon forestry" practices and how they relate to the ongoing definition of criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management will have to be agreed upon. The procedures for certifying and monitoring "carbon forests" will have to be adopted and they will have to be compatible with the prevailing timber certification standards of organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council. Casting a long shadow of uncertainty over the international negotiations on mitigating climate change and on the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush Administration in the United States announced in March 2001 that it would not be pursuing ratification of the agreement. As the principal greenhouse gas-producing nation, the United States must be a key player in any workable arrangement.

CDM would allow for carbon sequestration and storage investments in reforestation, in afforestation, and in reducing deforestation to qualify as emission reductions credits by the investing countries. The theory is that it does not matter where the emission reductions occur in the world for the global atmosphere to benefit.

Carbon forests will also have to pass the tests of "additionality" and "leakage." Additionality means that the emission reductions attributed to the carbon forest must be new and in addition to those that would have occurred anyway. Leakage, on the other hand, refers to the requirement that the reduction does not cause an equivalent emission elsewhere. For example, is the protection of a 100,000-hectare watershed a new, additional investment or would it have been protected anyway? Does the protection of that watershed mean that the deforestation will still occur elsewhere? For there to be no leakage in this example, there must be a net reduction in overall deforestation.


Forests not only have a significant impact on climate change, they also influence it. Through their destruction, forests can be serious sources of greenhouse gases and through their sustainable management they can be important sinks of the same gases. Forests act as important buffers that cushion the impact of ongoing climate change.

There are three broad categories of forestry-related interventions that will help stabilize greenhouse gas emissions: managing the existing forest resource better, expanding the area of forest cover, and using woodfuels as a substitute for fossil fuels. These interventions do not necessarily fall within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, but they could make major environmental and socio-economic contributions to the countries where they are undertaken -- whether the Kyoto Protocol is ratified or not.

Generally, it should be noted that in discussions at international fora of forestry's role in mitigating climate change, it is often overlooked that while trees have an enormous potential to sequester and store large volumes of carbon, they will be undergoing considerable stress as they try to adapt to the changing climate. In fact, millions of hectares of forests will be dying as a consequence and will be, themselves, sources of carbon emissions. Obviously, this could limit their sequestration capacity and their contribution to mitigating climate change. How this will play out in the coming decades is not known.

Managing the existing forest resource better involves introducing improved forest management and harvesting policies and technologies to improve the existing forests' capacity for carbon sequestration and storage. This can be accomplished by making investments that minimize the loss of forest area to deforestation, that maintain or improve tree growth, that minimize soil disturbance and residual stand damage during timber harvesting, and that ensure quick and satisfactory regeneration of new forests. It could also include adopting socially acceptable programs of forest protection or joint management; improving the management of parks and protected areas; ensuring satisfactory natural regeneration of harvested forests and forests damaged by fire, insects, and disease; improving forest fire suppression and management capabilities; adopting reduced-impact logging practices; and minimizing the negative environmental impact of road construction and maintenance. In short, it means practising sustainable forest management. Given that the overwhelming majority of tropical forests are not sustainably managed, there is tremendous scope for improvement. The Sustainable Forest Management Project in Cameroon, Trees for Tomorrow in Jamaica, and the Arenal Conservation and Development Project are CIDA-supported projects that work towards enhancing forest management in developing countries.

For many years, CIDA has collaborated with the governments of developing countries and with non-governmental organizations on projects for improving forest management. But although sustainable forest management should be the goal of all countries with forest cover, there are difficulties with including the better management of natural forests in any internationally recognized program to obtain carbon credits. In developing countries, and to a lesser extent in developed countries, the financial and human resources needed to adequately monitor forest management simply do not exist. Forests are normally the responsibility of government and governments do not, at the present time, have the budgets and staff to manage the forests by today's modest standards, let alone to take on the monitoring of forest management for carbon sequestration and storage. To be effective, monitoring requires a new, innovative program that would require massive injections of money and qualified personnel. Furthermore, there is no satisfactory baseline data available in most countries that could be used as the yardstick to measure future management. Without this initial information, it would be impossible to do the monitoring, even if the funds and staff were available.

The Sustainable Forest Management Project in Cameroon, Trees for Tomorrow in Jamaica, and the Arenal Conservation and Development Project are CIDA-supported projects that work towards enhancing forest management in developing countries.

Expanding the area of forest cover by establishing tree plantations, agroforestry plantings, or analog forests enlarges the capacity of the terrestrial carbon sink. Trees are composed of approximately 50 percent carbon which they extract from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. The rate of carbon sequestration is depends on the growth characteristics of the species, the conditions for growth where the tree is planted, and the density of the tree's wood. It is greatest in the younger stages of tree growth, between 20 to 50 years. Growth rates on commercial plantations in the tropics have been improving steadily as the results of tree improvement research have been applied. The technology to establish fast-growing plantations exists, as does the global expertise for establishing them. Growth rates of more than 30 cubic metres/hectare/year are now commonplace for intensive industrial pulp plantations in the tropics and FAO estimates that there are between 1.5 million and 2.0 million hectares of tree plantations established every year. Globally, intensive plantation management is being employed to meet industrial roundwood needs and can be called upon to grow more trees and grow them faster for carbon sequestration objectives. Estimates of the area of land available for planting varies greatly, but it is probably between 300 to 400 million hectares in developing countries (although much of that area is abandoned farming and grazing land subject to investment and socio-cultural constraints). Obviously, an opportunity exists to combine proven technologies, technical expertise, and available land to expand the area of tree plantations. However, if the funds were made available to invest in such massive plantation programs, there would be a need to strengthen the managerial and technical capacities in tropical countries that implement them.

CIDA has supported expanded tree planting through projects like the Treegrowers Cooperative Project in India and the SADC Tree Seeds Centres Project in Southern Africa.

On another front, agroforestry plantings and analog forestry offer some scope for carbon sequestration. Some agroforestry systems hold considerable potential for improving carbon sequestration and storage in both the soil and the biomass. Long rotation systems that use trees for windbreaks, border plantings, and overstory shade can sequester carbon for many decades. Of lesser importance are short rotation agroforestry systems like improved fallows or hedgerow intercropping unless the wood is used as fuelwood in substitution for fossil fuels. Analog forests attempt to reverse the loss of forest cover by planting trees and lesser plants on deforested lands, recreating the structure and functions of the original forest. In this way, they offer the opportunity to expand forest cover, sequester carbon during the growing phase, and to provide long-term carbon storage when mature.

Urban tree planting also offers the advantages of reducing greenhouse gas build-up by sequestering carbon, by providing shade that reduces energy consumption for air conditioning in summer, and by providing shelter that reduces heating system emissions in winter. Tree planting, by whatever method, has a broad-based appeal in many societies and brings with it many benefits beyond the sequestration of atmospheric carbon. Whatever type of tree planting approach is used, the carbon storage value of the wood depends very much on its end use. Fast-growing wood used for woodpulp has a relatively low storage value because the end product is short-lived. On the other hand, slower-growing wood used for lumber or furniture can store carbon for many decades.

Unlike monitoring the management of natural forests, new plantations would be comparatively easy to monitor. Verification could be carried out using aerial and satellite imagery with appropriate levels of ground checking to confirm tree survival and growth.

Expanding the use of woodfuels as substitutes for fossil fuels is the third important role that forests can play. Globally, woodfuels (firewood and charcoal) account for over 55 percent of all wood harvested. In developing countries, four times as much wood is cut to meet energy needs than for industrial purposes. FAO estimates that while fuelwood and charcoal's overall contribution to the developing world's energy budget is about 15 percent, they supply more than 70 percent of the total energy requirements for over 30 countries. Biomass fuels, unlike fossil fuels, are considered to be "carbon-neutral," the assumption being that the resulting emissions will be compensated for by the absorption of an equivalent amount of carbon in the regrowth of the fuelwood on sustainably managed woodlots. For example, if fuelwood plantations are managed sustainably and replanted after harvesting, there will be no net emissions because the carbon will be captured by photosynthesis of the new plantation . If energy consumption shifts from fossil fuels to fuelwood, there is a net gain in emission reductions.

In developing countries, the continued or expanded use of woodfuels has potentially important impacts -- both positive and negative -- for women and children. Woodfuel is a relatively cheap energy source. It is collected outside the market economy and, therefore does not place a demand on the limited financial resources of the less privileged groups in society. Money that is not needed to meet domestic energy needs can then freed up for other urgent necessities. Village or household woodlots can relieve the time consuming burden of firewood collection. However, the use of woodfuel can also have serious health implications. Breathing wood smoke in closed quarters is known to be a cause of many respiratory problems.

Capturing Vehicle Emissions with Tree Plantations

Canada has one of the highest ratios of vehicles per capita in the world and, consequently, one of the highest auto emission rates. In 1995, it was estimated that Canada's total carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles was 56 million tonnes, or the equivalent of over 15 million tonnes of carbon. How large an area of fast-growing plantations would be needed to sequester such a large quantity of carbon? Assuming an average growth rate of 15m3/ha/year of medium density species, which can be obtained in many developing countries, it would require 2.7 million hectares of plantations to sequester 15 million tonnes. The plantations could be effective at capturing carbon until they reach maturity, at which time new plantations would have to be established.

If such a large area could be committed to carbon forestry, what would be the cost of establishing the plantations? At $850 per hectare for establishment and initial maintenance, the total cost would be $2.3 billion. Feasible or not? If so, is there the political resolve to undertake such an ambitious program? Who would implement it and with what funds? To sequester and store a similar volume of carbon through the establishment of plantations in Canada would require over 18 million hectares at a cost of nearly $13 billion.

Despite the benefits they can offer, woodfuels have serious limitations. First, woodfuel plantations have not been established widely because it has not been economic to do so. While plantations are a viable source of wood for more valuable products such as pulp fibre or solid wood products, low-value woodfuel cannot usually cover the plantation establishment and maintenance costs. Second, there are no technologies available, at present, that permit woodfuels to be used as economic energy sources for large power requirements such as those needed for small cities or industries. Research and development, aided by "carbon taxes" on petroleum products, could provide the incentive for their development but currently they are not used to any degree, anywhere in the world. Can forest plantations in developing countries be feasible options for carbon offset projects?


What is the potential carbon trading market for forestry-related investments? At the present time, no one really knows. Will investors be willing to consider forestry investments and if so, on what scale of investment? If it is assumed that 80 million tonnes of carbon or 10 percent of the total emission reduction commitment of the Kyoto Protocol will be addressed through forestry investments and that the likely market value will be $20 per tonne of sequestered carbon, this would create a market of $1.6 billion.

There are still unanswered questions about the role of forests in carbon trading markets. The sequestration of carbon by forests must be quantifiable and be in addition to that which would have occurred anyway. How this will be measured is still unknown. Also unknown is the nature of the costs and benefits to participating countries. Information concerning the primary costs and benefits of the new forest practices to be employed as well as the secondary costs (i.e., plantations' impoverishment of biodiversity) and benefits (i.e., job creation or soil conservation) is imprecise. There is also still considerable uncertainty about investor interests and priorities in forest-related carbon trading projects. Having both political and economic stability in the countries to be invested will be key to attracting partners. It is important that a scientifically acceptable methodology be developed and agreed upon for measuring emissions reduction. Only in this way will there be a viable carbon trading market established.

Research is needed to provide the information for sound policy decisions. Specific information needs include collecting better baseline data, improving methodologies for assessment and monitoring, compiling and disseminating forest-specific information on potential technological and social innovations, and analyzing the constraints to adaptation and change.

Are carbon sequestration and multiple use forestry compatible? There are concerns that the growing interest in forests' role in carbon sequestration might overshadow the hard-won gains in recognizing the important multipurpose roles they play. The monetary value of sequestration and storage has the potential to dwarf the more modest economic returns that come from timber, non-wood forest products, water, biodiversity and other environmental services and put at risk the recent advances in respecting traditional forest values of indigenous peoples.

Whatever the agreed-upon interventions eventually are, they must be environmentally sustainable, economically viable, technologically feasible, and socially adaptable in the countries where they are developed. Under the right circumstances, forestry options for carbon sequestration and storage can be attractive investment alternatives that provide society many external socio-economic and environmental benefits.


Forest-related interventions can have numerous positive spinoff effects apart from carbon sequestration and storage: improved supply of wood products, better management of protected areas, increased agricultural production through agroforestry, creation of employment opportunities in rural areas, and improved environmental management. As a consequence, there needs to be a greater integration of climate change initiatives with other ongoing sustainable development programs, particularly with those aimed at the conservation of biodiversity, sustainable forest management, and control of deforestation. With financial resources to address these issues becoming increasingly scarce, it should be the he highest priority of donors and recipient countries alike to adopt an effective coordination mechanism to avoid waste and duplication.

To have any chance of long-term success, carbon forests must have the support of the governments, the local communities, and the populace at large of the countries where they are established. They must be convinced that the forests are in their long-term interests. This means that be involved in the not only in the conceptualization, planning, and implementation, but that they also have meaningful roles and responsibilities to play and have a just share in the benefits derived. Carbon forests must be an integral part of the country's overall development plans.

Forest-related interventions can have numerous positive spinoff effects apart from carbon sequestration and storage: improved supply of wood products, better management of protected areas, increased agricultural production through agroforestry, creation of employment opportunities in rural areas, and improved environmental management.

There are constraints to enhancing forestry's role in mitigating global climate change. Many of these constraints can be addressed through the coordinated efforts of development assistance programs with each donor agency focussing on its comparative advantage to assist developing countries. Constraints include weak governmental and non-governmental institutions; inadequate higher education, training, and research; demand for basic human needs of local populations; pressure for additional agricultural land and consequent deforestation; high cost of plantation establishment and maintenance; and ecological issues related to planting monocultures, reducing biodiversity, and the effect of using agrochemicals in tree plantations. Given the appropriate policy framework and sensitivity to the social, cultural, economic, and environmental conditions, these constraints can be successfully overcome. Will policy-makers and decision-takers have the courage to take the difficult measures to turn the situation around? How serious will the impact of climate change have to be for action to be taken on the scale necessary to be effective? These are important questions that are yet to be answered.

Forest-related investments for mitigating climate change must be viewed as a complement, not a substitute, to a global effort to reduce fossil fuel emissions in both developed and developing countries. The major challenge is clearly to improve the efficiency in the use of coal and petroleum-based fuels for energy generation for industry, manufacturing, transportation, and the heating /cooling of buildings. Hard choices must be made to reduce the use of these fuels. These could include the elimination of subsidies to energy-inefficient, polluting industries, tax credits to "green" consumers, an increase in petroleum taxes, and incentives to research and development of alternative energy sources such as wind or solar power and the fuel-cell technology.

Trees and forests should be looked upon as "temporary" carbon sinks that can assist in reversing the deterioration of our atmosphere until the time that truly "clean" technologies are available on a large scale. Carbon forests can help cleanse the atmosphere of the accumulated emissions of the last 200 years, but full recovery will require centuries of much reduced emissions and greatly enhanced sequestration and storage. Our successful adaptation to inevitable climate change will depend on our willingness and ability to adopt new technologies, change our consumption patterns, adopt appropriate institutional arrangements, and secure financing for mitigation initiatives.

Sources of Information

Readers wishing to explore these issues further can consult the following publications and websites:

Anon. (1999); State of the World's Forests, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, (2)

Battle, Ellen (1998); Climate of Change: A Glimpse of Canada's Future, David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver (10)

Ciesla, William (1995); Climate change, forests and forest management, FAO Forestry Paper 126, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, p.128 (2)

Glavin, Terry (1999); Sea Change, Canadian Geographic Magazine, May / June 1999, pp. 38-48 (11)

IPCC (2000); IPCC special Report: Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry

IPCC, Summary for Policy Makers: Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change - IPCC Working Group III (9)

IPCC, Summary for Policy Makers: Scientific-Technical Analyses of Impacts, Adaptations and Mitigation of Climate Change - IPCC Working Group II (8)

IPPC, Summary for Policy Makers: The Science of Climate Change - IPCC Working Group I (7)

Stuart, Marc and Pedro Moura Costa (1998); Climate change mitigation by forestry: a review of international initiatives, International Institute for Environment and Development, London, p.68 (1)

Climate, Biodiversity, and Forests: Issues and Opportunities Emerging from the Kyoto Protocol

Global Warming Impacts on Forests

Carbon Sequestration: State of the Science - a comprehensive report by the US Department of Energy.

Global Environment Outlook 2000 - analyses the current state of forests globally, and region by region.

Environmental Change and Vulnerability: Lessons from Vietnam and the Indochina Region - Session 3, "Natural resources and environmental change" includes summaries of papers relating to forests and climate change.

That sinking feeling - a New Scientist report on the potential for forests to become carbon sources in response to climate change

Will the Terrestrail Carbon Sink Saturate Soon?

The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability - Section 4.1 outlines the impacts on climate change on forest ecosystems

Climate Change Impacts on Forests Explored

Carbon Sinks in the Post-Kyoto World: Part I

Carbon Sinks in the Post Kyoto World: Part II

How Will Climate Change Impact the World's Forests?

Global Change Master Directory Includes an extensive index of websites related to forestry and climate change.

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Last Modified: 08/31/2003

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