While much of the attention at the current UN climate talks in Paris has centered on issues such as rising sea levels, developing clean energy in lieu of fossil fuels, and wealthy countries aiding those with less resources, one crucial element up for discussion is the preservation of the world’s forests.
Stopping deforestation — whether illegal, legal, caused by human action or “natural” forces like forest fires — may be the most impactful way to limit climate change and preserve biodiversity. This is the judgment of a prominent Oxford, England-based forestry thinktank.
From the New York Times:
If I had one bag of money, I’d be giving it to the Brazilians and the forest countries to sort themselves out. It’s demonstrably faster and cheaper than anything else we could do.
—Andrew Mitchell, executive director, Global Canopy Program
Fires and logging are a perfect storm for deforestation
While the Brazilian government is concentrating on policing and developing policies in order to prevent illegal deforestation, droughts are contributing a rash of forest fires in the country. As climate change heats up across the country, more droughts as well as destructive flooding can be expected.
Brazil has seen a 65 percent increase in wildfires since 1999 — when authorities began tracking them — a 25 percent jump since January of this year. So far some 220,000 fires have broken in 2015.
From Mongo Bay:
This increase in fires in these areas happens due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, with the advancement of plantations, and activities like livestock farming.
—Fabiano Morelli, Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research/INPE
A particular problem with forest fires is that they contribute to circumstances that result in more fires and bring along with them a host of other problems, including soil erosion, a lower water table, river silting and biodiversity loss.
— Brazil Character Lab (@scharlab) December 5, 2015
Reforestation, but the right kind
Simply planting trees isn’t always the best way to go when it comes to battling deforestation. For example, plantation forestry can have a detrimental effect on the soil and biodiversity of a given area.
For example, eucalyptus planting in South America, particularly in Uruguay and Brazil, has been controversial for these very reasons. Eucalyptus is an invasive species that both has advantages and disadvantages.
In Brazil, there have been concrete benefits to sustainable eucalyptus plantations. The originally Australian and Southeast Asian timber’s fast growth cycle can make it preferable to logging native forests, and it can be used as a windbreak in order to prevent soil erosion.
In Uruguay, however, eucalyptus as a forestry crop — mainly for pulp mills — has been criticized for changing soil, depleting it of nutrients and influencing its fertility and acidification.
According to Gervasio Piñeiro, a Uruguayan ecologist from the University of Buenos Aires, tree farms that are planted on native grasslands can deplete groundwater, rivers and streams, reducing water flow by 50 percent. Tree plantations have also decreased the habitat of the country’s native species that require large areas of prairie to survive.
From the Nation:
The tree farms are a kind of latent threat. Like a rug, the dark green, uniform tree farms are smothering the diverse natural landscape.
—Ricardo Rodríguez, biologist
In short, the rewilding of native forests and responsible tree planting can have great benefits in terms of pollution, biodiversity, climate change and reducing forest fires. That said, it’s best to preserve original forest cover, with all its vast ecological wealth. Primeval forests function as powerful carbon sinks, which may be the Earth’s best weapon against man-made climate change.