The low-tech solution to cut carbon emissions in half

Parque Estadual do Rio Doce
© Moisés Silva Lima

On Monday, leaders from around the world will meet in Paris with the goal of reaching a global agreement to fight disastrous levels of climate change. In order for such a goal to be a success, they’ll need to transition the world away from fossil fuels, but how fast that can happen remains to be seen.

While the switch from carbon-heavy fossil fuels to renewable energy technologies needs to happen as fast as possible in order to cut carbon emission, there’s another tool that shouldn’t be underestimated.

That tool is rainforests.

There’s no shortage of reasons why rainforests should be conserved and restored in their own right. They’re home to cultures, animals and plants that can’t survive anywhere else. But rainforests can help play a big role in sequestering carbon as the world weens itself off of fossil fuels.

In an article published in Nature Climate Change earlier this week, climate experts from Rainforest Trust and the Woods Hole Research Center estimate that conserving and restoring tropical forests could cut carbon emissions by half.

It’s well known that forests are an important carbon sink, but right now, rainforest regions areas are contributing to emissions due to forest degradation and deforestation.

The article identifies three ways that trend could be turned around, and rainforests could start helping sequester carbon. First, if deforestation were to stop, so would the emissions produced by harvesting trees and slash-and-burn agriculture. Second, forests that are currently recovering from previous damage can capture carbon at a much higher rate—something to the tune of 3 gigatons of carbon per year.

Thirdly, rainforest restoration could be another major way to capture carbon. This could be a difficult proposition, and there’s a trade-off between the benefits of carbon sequestering and whatever new uses that land might have now, such as agriculture or infrastructure. But the authors estimate that if 500 million acres of land that are not currently being used productively were restored, that could sequester 1 gigaton of carbon per year for many decades into the future.

The authors make it clear that rainforests can only help bridge the transition to a renewable future and prevent disastrous levels of warming (more than 2 degrees C) if the technology transition is underway. That’s partly because carbon uptake by forests slows as forests mature. It’s also because if warming continues at its current rate, the hotter temperatures and other environmental changes could harm rainforests beyond their ability to recover.

The good news is that forestry conservation can be implemented faster than other technological shifts, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order for that conservation to happen.

The low-tech solution to cut carbon emissions in half
The bridge to a to a low-carbon future that we already have.

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