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Forests for society, ecosystem and climate

This post is the second in a two-part series of blogs by 
the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA).  Read the first post on conserving our forests here.  
This post was written by Janaki Alavalapati, a senior fellow with the ECPA program  and Professor and Head of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at College of Natural Resources and Environment, Virginia Tech.

Carbon sequestration infographicForests cover about 30% of the world’s land area, supplying various economic and ecosystem services that include climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration (FAO & JRC 2012). They provide us with food in the form of edible plants, fruits, nuts, berries, insects, and animals. Millions of households in the world sustain their income and livelihood through timber, fuel wood, fodder, and a variety of non-timber products such as mushrooms, honey, and herbs being used as medicine. The forest ecosystem is the most important living gene bank on earth and provides critical habitat for wildlife including a number of threatened and endangered species. In addition, forests play a key role in maintaining the ecological base for agricultural production by controlling water and wind erosion and by recycling vital nutrients back into the soil. While people have a greater understanding of these conventional societal and ecosystem benefits, the role of forests in mitigating climate change is not well understood.

Burning fossil fuels and deforestation lead to the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas (GHG), in the atmosphere, causing a climate change problem. Sustainable management of forests and agricultural lands can increase carbon sequestration, thereby mitigating climate change (IPCC 2007). The forest ecosystem stores about 45% of terrestrial carbon and has the potential to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere if proper land use practices are followed (Gordon 2008). The carbon sequestration process works by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere into the stems, roots, branches, and leaves as trees grow over time. However, when forests are cleared and burned, their stored carbon is emitted back into the atmosphere. For example, tropical deforestation alone contributes to about 20% of overall human-caused carbon dioxide emissions per year (Gullison et al. 2007). So, depending upon how they are managed, forests can act as a sink or source of carbon emission.

Use of sustainably produced and harvested timber products can significantly reduce overall carbon emissions. Malmsheimer et al. (2011) noted that assessment of forests in mitigating climate change and global warming must account for low carbon emissions associated with wood products manufacture, carbon storage in long-lasting wood products, emissions that are avoided as a result of using wood in place of energy-intensive materials and products such as concrete, steel and plastics, and substitution of bio-energy for fossil fuels. Managing forests and carbon is considered a low-cost option of mitigating GHG emissions (IPCC 2007). The costs of targeted global reductions in GHG emissions can be reduced significantly by the extensive use of forests and other land uses by sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere. This realization has recently prompted the United Nations to create the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation and enhancement of forest carbon) program in developing countries. However, issues such as measuring, reporting, and verification of carbon storage; setting a baseline for historical land-based GHG emissions; leakage; and permanence of stored carbon pose significant challenges to implementing forest-based carbon projects. Advancements in measurement technologies, remote sensing, and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), for example, are expected to help overcome these challenges. Last but not least, programs and policies to control deforestation, establish new forested areas, displace energy-intensive products with wood products, and use forest biomass for bio-energy can enhance forests’ potential in mitigating climate change while enhancing both societal and ecosystem benefits.


FAO & JRC. 2012. Global forest land-use change 1990–2005. FAO Forestry Paper No. 169. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and European Commission Joint Research Centre. Rome, FAO.

Gordon, B. B. 2008. Forests and Climate Change: Forcings, Feedbacks, and the Climate Benefits of Forests, Science, 320: 1444-1449.

Gullison, R.E., et al. 2007. Tropical Forest and Climate Policy, Science, 316, 985:986.

IPCC, 2007. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA., XXX pp.


Malmsheimer, R. W., et al. 2011. Managing Forests because Carbon Matters: Integrating Energy, Products, and Land Management Policy. Supplement to Journal of Forestry, 109: S7-S51.

This entry was written by Senior ECPA FellowDr. Janaki R. R Alavalapati in collaboration with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) Clearinghouse and was originally posted in Global Conversations. See original post, here.


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