Are We Planting The Wrong Trees To Tackle Climate Change?
You’ve probably seen this meme on Facebook:
I know I see it roughly once a week from an eco-minded/tech obsessed friend and I constantly find myself in agreement with this statement for in a world so dominated by a constant internet connection nature often seems futile. Of course even the biggest optimist knows that this statement is a very simplified way of solving some of the environmental problems faced by the planet today. For one scientists may have just sent this meme into extinction by releasing a paper which questions the assumption that the planting of new forests will help to combat climate change.
Between 1750 and 1850, coinciding with the start of the Industrial Revolution, Europe witnessed huge swathes of deforestation. The continent in 1750 would have looked very different to what we now see as it was once heavily forested yet during those 100 years it lost an area of forest roughly 190,000 sq km.
However the Industrial Revolution also sparked a huge surge in the amount of fossil fuels consumed by the continent. This increase in consumption led to a lull in the timber rush and as a result Europe’s forests have grown by around 386,000 sq km and now cover 10% more land than pre-industrial revolution.
Excellent so there’s now more forest than before, so according to that meme at the start we should be saving the world. Not quite. The assumption that this rapid reforestation can only be a good thing appears to be flawed as the trees growing in Europe today are quite simply the “wrong kind of tree”.
In 2016 some 85% of Europe’s trees are managed by humans meaning our forests differ massively from their pre-industrial fore-bearers. In the last Century we have chosen to plant rapidly growing, and commercially valuable trees such as Scots Pine and other conifers.
These trees absorb more heat than trees like oak and birch and it is also believed that these man-made forests soak up way less carbon than nature’s own forests. Even the way we manage these forests can lead to carbon being released into the atmosphere. Removing trees in an organised fashion releases the carbon which would otherwise be stored in the ground as leaf litter and dead wood.
Speaking to Science in Action on the BBC World Service, Dr Kim Naudts who carried out the study while at the Laboratory of Climate Science and Environment in Gif-sur-Yvette, France said; “Even well managed forests today store less carbon than their natural counterparts in 1750. Due to the shift to conifer species, there was a warming over Europe of almost 0.12 degrees and that is caused because the conifers are darker and absorb more solar radiation.”
Of a major concern for the researchers is that most governments feature reforestation as a key part of their plans to tackle climate change. This study has highlighted that although on paper reforestation should tackle climate change, it must be done correctly and the most efficient species of trees to make any difference. In essence we need areas to be reclaimed totally by nature and no longer managed by man, yet this may be easier said than done.
This study was published in the journal Science
Featured Image taken at Bedgebury Pinetum by Emily Stewart
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