Cutting down forests actually helps with climate change mitigation? Believe it or not, this is often the case in ethical, working forest management.
This topic continues to receive a lot of attention as we look at routes toward decarbonization and climate change mitigation. Research and evidence continue to show how actively managed and sustainably harvested forests play a big role in CO2 sequestration.
From a straightforward perspective, this makes sense. Growing forests means growing lots of trees. And lots of trees means lots of carbon absorption.
At face value, we can see a potential argument for leaving forests completely untouched and "natural." After all, that will leave more trees to absorb even more CO2.
Diving deeper into the issue, however, we can see that this is definitely not the case.
Why Do Managed Forests Work Better for Decarbonization?
Despite the argument about natural forests having more trees (and therefore more carbon absorption potential), the truth about managed versus unmanaged forests and carbon absorption doesn’t really work that way.
In a recent talk by Dr. Edie Sonne Hall of Three Trees Consulting, leaving forests unmanaged could hinder climate mitigation and carbon sequestration. Utilizing research out of the University of Washington, Dr. Sonne Hall noted significant differences in the amount of carbon absorbed by both managed and unmanaged forestland.
Here are some of the main takeaways from this data:
- Privately owned and managed forests can sequester up to 4.9 tons of CO2 for every acre of forestland.
- This number is almost two times larger than the amount of carbon absorbed by unmanaged forests owned by the US Forest Service.
- In USFS forests, more than 70% of forest growth is dying.
Managed forests, using techniques such as forest thinning, decrease the amount of dead and dying trees. This allows much more efficient healthy forest growth for greater carbon sequestration efficiency.
Dr. Sonne Hall reinforced the renewable nature of sustainably managed forests in her talk. Through the hard work of management, forests can continually serve in lowering CO2 throughout growth and harvest cycles.
Understanding Our Role in the Anthropocene World
The principle of responsible forestry aiding in climate change mitigation relates to an important concept within the era of the world we live: the Anthropocene.
For those who may not know, the Anthropocene is a geologic time period much like the Holocene or other historical eras. The Anthropocene refers to the most recent point in earth’s history – when human-related industry and activity began to have a major effect on global climate and ecosystems.
While the term is still informal, it is widely used in many scientific and academic communities to reflect the current era of human-related climate change impacting our world today.
What we’re referencing here is the world we live in. Human-caused climate change has begun to take noticeable effects on the world. As human beings, then, we need to take immediate and focused action to help undo as much of the damage as we can.
Making Our Way Through Human Caused Climate Change
As we have talked about before on the blog, there is certainly an argument on principle about leaving forests untouched by human activity. From general aesthetics to an appreciation of undisturbed and natural land, this is not an unfounded position to take on this debate.
Despite this argument, however, we need to face some hard truths about unmanaged forests. Because of human-caused climate change, we are seeing increasingly negative effects on regions such as our forests.
Even if we leave forests untouched, they are still being impacted by the state of the Anthropocene. Problems such as increased forest diseases, unprecedented droughts, and infestations of invasive insects greatly impact unmanaged forests.
Even worse, the risk and devastation of wildfires only worsens in unmanaged forests. These fires cause unbelievable amounts of CO2 to release into the atmosphere. This, of course, can stand directly in the way of our collective carbon mitigation efforts.
For example, the 2020 wildfire season in California undid nearly 20 years of our decarbonization efforts. This was just one wildfire season. If we don’t intervene in managing future wildfire risk, we will assuredly see further destruction and worsening climate outcomes.
For these reasons, we need to steward our natural world and help preserve it. That includes direct involvement in forest management with techniques like forest thinning to help.
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