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Reforestation cannot offset carbon emissions from harvesting wood

Forests play a pivotal role in the global carbon cycle, yet their capacity to sequester carbon might be significantly overestimated by some current models, warns Professor Runsheng Yin from Michigan State University

In his new book – Global Forest Carbon: Policy, Economics and Finance – Yin delves into the complexities of utilizing forests as nature-based solutions to combat climate change.

Heavy investment in reforestation 

Yin advocates for a recalibration of how carbon credits from forest-related activities are calculated, suggesting that the present models do not align well with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“Companies worldwide are investing heavily in reforestation strategies, and while vital this is not going to be enough to remove the amount of carbon created in making timber, and the results won’t be quick enough to counteract the carbon output created by cutting down the trees in the first place,” Yin cautions, highlighting a gap in the current understanding and approach towards forest carbon sequestration.

More rigorous assessments are needed

Yin calls for “more rigorous accounting and assessments for local forest carbon storage and sequestration schemes,” emphasizing the importance of considering the lifecycle of timber products and the duration of their carbon storage. 

He suggests the establishment of intermediary agencies to better coordinate the contributions of local smallholders, aiming for a more impactful management of forest carbon at both national and international levels.

Rising CO2 emissions 

The urgency of addressing rising atmospheric CO2 levels is underscored by the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

“Nations, corporations and individuals are turning to nature-based solutions to try to offset their greenhouse emissions. As the practice becomes increasingly monetized, it is crucial that the accounting is done accurately,” Yin said, pointing out the critical need for precision in environmental accounting amid the worsening climate crisis.

Complex forest carbon dynamics 

Yin’s research, which analyzed a pine plantation in the southern United States, revealed that the potential for carbon offset credits was exaggerated by a factor of at least 2.76. This discrepancy highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding of forest carbon dynamics, especially considering the varied lifespans of wood products and their implications for long-term carbon storage.

“Properly accounted for, forest carbon offsetting is important and deserves to be seriously promoted and financially rewarded. But my research shows that its potential may not be as great as some analysts have claimed,” Yin added, critiquing the overly optimistic projections of some studies. He emphasizes the necessity of integrating local carbon offset schemes within broader, government-led strategies that align with international climate commitments.

This call for a reevaluation of forest carbon sequestration’s potential and methodology underscores the complexity of relying on forests as a solution to climate change, urging a balanced, well-informed approach to harnessing their benefits.

Forest carbon offsetting schemes

Forest carbon offsetting is a mechanism that aims to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby combating climate change. It involves the protection, restoration, or sustainable management of forests to increase their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. 

Trees and other vegetation naturally capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, storing it in their biomass and in the soil. By increasing forested areas or enhancing the health of existing forests, carbon offset projects can sequester additional carbon dioxide, offsetting emissions made elsewhere.

Entities, such as businesses or individuals, can invest in forest carbon offset projects to compensate for their own carbon emissions. This is often part of a broader strategy to achieve carbon neutrality or reduce one’s carbon footprint. 

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