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Afforestation is not a solution to mitigate CO2 emissions

October 17th, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

“I cannot think of a more tasteless undertaking than to plant trees in a naturally treeless area, and to impose an interpretation of natural beauty on a great landscape that is charged with beauty and wonder, and the excellence of eternity.” – Ansel Adams

 

Some scientific articles and many newspapers and magazines have spread the idea that planting many trees would be one of the best and most natural ways to fight against climate change. This is because trees fix CO2 through photosynthesis and thus they could lower the atmospheric CO2 concentration. To revert the current CO2 levels, if possible at all, would require the tree plantation to be massive and global. However there is increasing evidence that a massive afforestation is not a solution for mitigating CO2 emissions, and in fact, it could be detrimental, especially in a warming world. Here are the main reasons:

  • Planting trees in grasslands, savannas, shrublands and other open ecosystems (those potential for massive afforestation) would imply a large loss of biodiversity. Many of these environments are ancient, with many endemics to open ecosystems, i.e., species that are shade-intolerant o require large open spaces [1].
  • Potential carbon fixation by afforestation, as estimated by those advocating for massive tree plantations, is largely overestimated. For instance, they often assume that treeless ecosystems do not store C, while many of these ecosystems store a lot of C below-ground (savannas, shrublands, peatlands, …). They also neglect that forest in boreal and high mountain environments absorb more sunlight (reduce albedo) and emit more heat than treeless ecosystems (especially when snowy), and thus they exacerbate global warning. Similarly massive afforestation in arid ecosystems could also reduce albedo (increase darkness). After accounting for all these and other details [2-5], the potential C fixation estimates by afforestation become much lower than previously thought.
  • There are physiological limits to increase ecosystem photosynthesis, and the increase is very slow (compared with the anthropogenic CO2 release). Any increase would require huge amount of water and the concomitant increase in respiration [6].
  • Many of the potential sites for afforestation are in dry seasonal climate, and thus prone to fire, if fuel is available. Massive afforestation would increase the amount and continuity of fuels (landscape homogeneization), increasing the chance of large and intense fires (i.e., abruptly releasing large amounts of CO2); this is already happening with other afforested areas (e.g., 2017 fires in Portugal and Chile [7]). They would also be prone to diseases and insect outbreaks, especially given the ongoing warming.
  • Massive afforestation would reduce land availability for agriculture and grazing; it would also consume a lot of water. All this would trigger a number of socio-economic impacts (e.g., rural depopulation), especially in poor countries.
  • Massive afforestation would be very expensive, yet would not make much C fixation during the next two or three decades (small trees don’t store much C). For C fixation it would be more efficient (and sustainable) to stop deforestation (i.e., to conserve mature forests with trees that are currently fixing C [8]), i.e., to pay subsides to owners or countries for conservation (e.g., Amazon, Indonesia, etc.).

There is no scientific evidence to support massive afforestation to fight against climate change. And we should not get distracted from the urgent actions needed: to drastic reduce fossil fuel use, to invest in alternative energy sources, to stop deforestation and ecosystem destruction, and to restore natural ecosystems.

Note that this message is not against tree plantations per se (e.g., for wood, food, fiber, for improving urban quality, etc.), but to emphasize that all the evidence points against massive afforestation as part of the solution for CO2 mitigation. For instance, planting trees in urban areas would contribute little to CO2 fixation, but have many other benefits, such as reducing the urban heat effect, filtering pollution, improving urban biodiversity and mental health for people, and even reducing the local climate change [9].

Left: species poor afforestation in southern Bulgaria; it burned with a high intensity fire 50 years after plantation (the Kresna fire, 2017). Right: species rich forest-savanna mosaic with frequent natural low intensity fires. Photos: JG Pausas, WJ Bond (from [10])

References

[1] Bond et al. 2019. The trouble with trees: Afforestation plans for Africa. Trends Ecol. Evol. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2019.08.003

[2] Veldman et al. 2019. On “The global tree restoration potential”. Science 366 (6463) 18 Oct 2019 [doi | link] + see also in the same issue: Lewis et al. [link], Friedlingstein et al. 2019 [link], Luedeling et al. [link], Delzeit et al. [link]

[3] Krause et al. 2019. Pitfalls in estimating the global carbon removal via forest expansion. bioRxiv 788026.

[4] Taylor SD & Marconi S. 2019. Rethinking global carbon storage potential of trees. bioRxiv 730325.

[5] Rahmstorf S. 2019. Can planting trees save our climate? RealClimate http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2019/07/can-planting-trees-save-our-climate/

[6] Baldocchi, D. & Peñuelas, J. (2019) The physics and ecology of mining carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by ecosystems. Glob. Change Biol., 25, 1191-1197.

[7] Chile 2017 fires: fire-prone forest plantations, jgpausas.blogs.uv.es/2017/09/16/ | Incendios en Chile 2017, jgpausas.blogs.uv.es/2017/02/10/

[8] Stephenson et al. 2014. Rate of tree carbon accumulation increases continuously with tree size. Nature 507: 90-93 [see also: link]

[9] Pausas J.G., Millán M.M. 2019. Greening and browning in a climate change hotspot: the Mediterranean Basin. BioScience 69: 143–151. [doi | oup | blog | pdf]

[10] Pausas J.G. & Bond W.J. 2019. Humboldt and the reinvention of nature. J. Ecol. 107: 1031-1037. [doi | jecol blog | jgp blog | pdf]  

Further readings: Texas AgriLife | Wired | Yale e360 | CSIC

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