Sunday, December 02, 2007

Forest Expansion Could Be Key to Carbon Dioxide Reduction

by Paul Eccleston
The Telegraph
November 29, 2007

Planting more trees could be the key to cutting CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, according to a new scientific study.

Between 1990 and 2005 the expansion of forests in the 27 EU countries absorbed an additional 126m tonnes of carbon each year - equal to 11 per cent of the continent's emissions.

The findings stunned a research team from the University of Helsinki who had in 1992 estimated the rate of increase of CO2 absorption through the expansion of forests at no more than 5 per cent.

"This shows that forests have been more important than switching to renewables in combating carbon emissions. Renewables have a part to play but they don't have as big a role as forests," said Professor Pekka E Kauppi who led the research.

"The message has to be - plant more trees. It is up to the negotiators who formulate policy but we think this is an important additional weapon."

EU leaders agreed the 20 per cent target earlier this year but no decision has been made on how the reductions will be divided among member states and whether carbon land-sinks such as forests will be included.

The researchers, writing in UK journal Energy Policy, said meeting the ambitious goal would require more than energy efficiency, new technology and reduction of non-CO2 gasses such as methane. Giving carbon credit for expansion of forests could also play a decisive role.

The performance of the forests as effective carbon sinks rate varied from 10 per cent in the 15 old member states - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, UK - to 15 per cent in the 12 new states (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia).

In Latvia forests more than offset per capita emissions and forests in Lithuania, Sweden, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Finland absorbed a large part of national emissions. But it did not have such a big impact on lightly-forested countries such as Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Cyprus and Denmark.

Last year Prof. Kauppi and his international team revealed the shift from clearing to planting trees in the world's most forested nations. They urged a more sophisticated approach to measuring forest cover that considered not just the area of forest but also the density of trees per hectare.

The team calculated the biomass and atmospheric carbon stored in forests and reported that forests had in fact expanded over the past 15 years in 22 of the 50 countries with most forest, including several EU members.

"The good news is that trees are extremely efficient mechanisms for capturing and storing carbon," says Prof. Kauppi, a member of the Nobel-laureate UN International Panel on Climate Change.

"The better news is that Europe's forests are thriving and expanding and therefore will play an increasingly important role in helping the EU to reach its environmental goals."

Co-author Aapo Rautiainen said: "Every year, the expanding European forests remove a surprisingly large amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

"According to rough estimates, their impact in reducing atmospheric carbon may well be twice that achieved by the use of renewable energy in Europe today."

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU is committed to an 8 per cent reduction of annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, using 1990 as the base year. Countries do not currently get credit for increasing natural carbon sinks through forestry and agriculture but negotiations on an accord to cover the post-Kyoto period 2012 to 2020 are underway.

CO2 emissions in EU nations grew by an average of 1 per cent every three years between 1992 and 2004. To reduce CO2 emissions in the EU by 20 per cent in the next 12 years, carbon emission needs to at least halve.

The report says emissions have not yet started to decline and that time is running out for the EU to meet its 2020 target.

The report's co-author Laura Saikku said: "Policies that accelerate the expansion of our forest biomass not only represent a win-win for climate change and biodiversity, they also open up economic opportunities.

"Land owners can benefit with new industries like forest-based bio-energy production. This could also help to reduce one of the main threats to sustained forest expansion - the need to open land to produce agricultural biofuels as alternatives to fossil fuels."

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation the UK's forests stored 95m tonnes of carbon in living biomass in 1990, rising to 112m tonnes in 2005. Over the same period the total amount of carbon in vegetation and soil rose from 778m tonnes to 858m tonnes.

But while forested areas in the UK have doubled over the last 60 years, the Forestry Commission warned further expansion was limited by pressure on the land. And three-quarters of the nation's land area would be needed just to offset emissions from cars.

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2007

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