Afforestation to mitigate climate change?

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Katie Nelson
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Afforestation to mitigate climate change?

279 Beyond the concrete buildings of downtown Durban, suburbs give way to rural tree plantations. Orderly rows of even-aged eucalyptus and pine trees quilt the landscape. Many of these farmed forests supply a thriving paper industry. More and more are being planted to combat climate change.  Planting trees is one strategy among a suite of others under the climate change policy known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries). Here at COP17, REDD+ has been hotly critiqued for its impacts to biodiversity and questionable effectiveness. Before diving into a discussion of the current status, let’s back up a second and explore the relatively non-controversial origins of REDD+.

REDD+ emerged from a concern over rainforest protection. When rainforests are cleared and burned, they release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. Recognizing that deforestation has been a major contributor to carbon emissions and climate change, the Coalition of Rainforest Nations devised a proposal for COP11 in Montreal to encourage forest protection in developing countries. A few years later, the proposal was revised into a policy known as REDD+. The “plus” added carbon sequestration and sustainable forest management to REDD’s suite of forest-related climate change objectives. Strategies to meet these objectives include preventing deforestation, promoting reforestation, and initiating afforestation. The last strategy is the least understood and most controversial.

During the fifth annual Forest Day segment of COP17, South African biologist, Guy Midgley offered grave warnings against afforestation. Afforestation refers to planting trees in areas that have not historically been forests. It is thought that by adding trees to these areas land 282 managers can increase carbon sequestration, mitigate climate change, and receive carbon reduction incentives under REDD+. While forest protection plays an important role in the fight against climate change, Midgley argues that prioritizing forest ecosystems over other native 281 ecosystems is a risky mitigation strategy that could confound adaptation efforts. Afforestation in South Africa, he cautions, overlays and destroys biologically diverse grasslands and woodlands. Yet the impacts of these projects go beyond the plantation boundary line. In addition to erasing native ecosystems within the plantation, afforestation introduces invasive species. Afforestation projects in South Africa rely on non-native trees—the country has no fast-growing native tree species. Instead land managers tend to rely on non-native pine and eucalyptus species. These species escape afforestation plantations to invasively outcompete native species. To complicate matters, many of the introduced species require inordinate amounts of water. Water soaked up by the afforestation projects leaves less for surrounding communities undermining climate change adaptation efforts. As governments prioritize national carbon reductions and seek financial incentives for afforestation, the historical, cultural, and ecological needs of local forest communities remain vulnerable and overlooked.

In order to determine if a management action like afforestation is even worthwhile, REDD+ policy makers must determine a baseline against which they can monitor carbon emission changes. In policy speak, this baseline is called a “reference level.” Determining the reference level is a political decision. Since last year, countries have been able to tailor their own reference levels according to “national circumstance.” This shifting baseline coupled with monitoring challenges and transparency concerns has made REDD+’s overall effectiveness impossible to determine—let alone the effectiveness of a single strategy. Afforestation, in particular, garners scepticism from the scientific community. Even the U.S. Forest Service has called for more research to ascertain afforestation effectiveness as a climate change mitigation strategy. (The agency suggests that the resulting albedo loss may cancel out any gains.)

280 On Sunday, REDD+ negotiators reported their progress to attendees of Forest Day. Stakeholders have thus far agreed that a reference levels are needed before discussion moves on to transparency and assessment. Negotiators claim that their groups are considering safeguards to protect biodiversity and local communities but that REDD+ financing is also taking up much of the discussion. It remains to be seen how their debates will impact afforestation and other strategies happening on the ground.

Afforestation under REDD+ is a huge climate change policy affecting millions of people in the developing world. However, in the context of the larger negotiations taking place here in Durban, REDD+ is only a small case study in a sea of complicated and diverse climate change policies being debated in Durban over these two weeks.  If this comparatively small policy is entrenched with thie many problems, you can imagine how convoluted the rest of the debates are... 

M.S. Candidate

Environmental Studies

University of Montana