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Restoring forest biodiversity has massive potential for carbon capture

A new study published in the journal Nature has found that allowing forests to naturally recover could capture approximately 226 Gigatons (Gt) of carbon. However, this is only feasible if there is a simultaneous reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. 

The study emphasizes the importance of community-driven efforts in conserving and restoring forest biodiversity to achieve these carbon capture goals.

Forest carbon potential 

The role of forests in carbon capture has been a subject of heated debate. A previous study published in the journal Science argued that forest restoration could sequester over 200 Gt of carbon, but subsequent discussions raised concerns about environmental impacts and the accuracy of this estimate.

Now, an international team of researchers led by ETH Zurich has integrated ground-sourced data and satellite datasets to clarify the forest carbon potential. 

Critical insights 

The analysis revealed that forests currently store about 328 Gt less carbon than they could naturally, largely due to deforestation.

Excluding areas used for urban and agricultural purposes, forests could sequester around 226 Gt in low human footprint regions. 

Moreover, protecting and allowing existing forests to mature can contribute to 61 percent of this potential, with the remainder achievable through ecosystem restoration and management.

Redefining forest restoration 

These findings emphasize the need for a diverse range of species to maximize the forest carbon potential. According to the scientists, biodiversity accounts for approximately half of the global forest productivity, highlighting the necessity of including natural species diversity in restoration efforts.

The authors stress that effective restoration is a deeply social endeavor involving various community-driven efforts to promote biodiversity. “We need to redefine what restoration means to many people,” said senior author Thomas Crowther, a professor of Ecology at ETH Zurich. 

“Restoration is not about mass tree plantations to offset carbon emissions. Restoration means directing the flow of wealth towards millions of local communities, Indigenous populations, and farmers that promote biodiversity across the globe. Only when healthy biodiversity is the preferred choice for local communities will we get long-term carbon capture as a byproduct.”

Study implications 

Thus, the study underscores the vital role of forests in carbon storage but cautions against considering them a substitute for reducing fossil fuel emissions. 

“My biggest fear is that corporations misuse this information as an excuse to avoid cutting fossil fuel emissions,” Crowther added. “The more we emit, the more we threaten nature and people. There can be no choice between reducing emissions and protecting nature because we urgently need both. We need nature for climate, and we need climate action for nature!” 

“Forests are incredible places, teeming with life and delivering countless benefits for humanity. This research reaffirms that we can make meaningful contributions to the fight against climate change by protecting and restoring degraded forests, and drawing on the wisdom and leadership of the local communities that know these ecosystems best. We owe it to nature, to future generations and to ourselves to meet this global challenge,” concluded world-famous primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall.

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