The Paris Climate Change Agreement has been reported as a breakthrough in tackling climate change.
But China is not committed to peak carbon emissions until 2030, and most of the developed countries aren’t committed to ending fossil fuel use by 2050. That means it’s very unlikely that fossil fuel emissions will fall at all in the next decade, or that they’ll be reduced by the necessary 80% by 2050.
And this means a rise of more than 2 degrees in global temperatures is almost inevitable.
The only hope we have lies in the forest.
A new paper published in Nature shows that absorption of carbon by tropical forests could offset much of the expected fossil fuel emissions over the next 35 years. Stabilising and reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere by protecting rainforest will buy us time to find and implement alternatives to fossil fuels.
“Used strategically the removal of carbon from the atmosphere using tropical forest conservation and restoration could help stabilise and then reduce the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere during the decades needed for an orderly transition away from fossil fuels, and could play a role equal to that of timely fossil fuel elimination in avoiding dangerous climate change.”
Protecting forests has three key advantages. Net emissions from deforestation account for between 8 and 15% of total annual carbon emissions1, as much as the whole of the USA. But that number doesn’t take into account the huge potential for carbon storage that rainforest harbours.
A third advantage is that changes in land management can be implemented much more quickly than changing a country’s use of fossil fuels to 100% renewables.
To avoid a critical 2 degree warming by reducing fossil fuels alone, we could stop the use of all fossil fuels in the next 20 years. By contrast, the same result could be achieved through conserving and restoring forests alongside a much slower phasing out of fossil fuels over the next 85 years. The cumulative reduction in emissions from fossil fuel use and forest management would be about the same, and world leaders would have an extra 65 years to halt fossil fuel emissions.
There are 500 billion tonnes of carbon contained in the trees and soils of tropical forests. This is half of the estimated carbon within global fossil fuel reserves2. And whilst keeping this intact has obvious political and economic implications for those countries and companies making money from forests, the resources required to bring about the changes are tiny in comparison to scaling up renewable energy to replace fossil fuel use.
Good news. But the authors of the paper are clear that the timing and extent of action is critical. Not only should this action to conserve and restore forests happen at the same time as phasing out fossil fuels, but the longer we wait, and the higher the rate of fossil fuel emissions, the more we’ll have to do in the future.