Scientists Warn against Treating Forests as Carbon Commodities

Scientists Warn against Treating Forests as Carbon Commodities

Using forests to prop up carbon markets can lead to “perverse effects” on land management, such as cutting out local communities

This aerial view shows the Boreal Forest, above The Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland on October 6, 2022.

Oliver Morin/AFP via Getty Images

CLIMATEWIRE | Growing alarm over climate change has pushed world leaders in recent years to see Earth’s forests as a critical resource in the fight against global warming.

But the newfound attention might not always be a good thing. The focus on forests and their value as carbon sinks could be contributing to an increase in global inequalities and create too much reliance on market-based solutions, such as carbon offsets.

The warning was included in a new report from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, a nonprofit network of forest scientists. Published Monday, the report provides a scientific review of recent trends in global forest governance.


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The findings will be officially launched Friday at the U.N. Forum on Forests in New York.

There’s been growing recognition about the role that forests play in the climate fight, the report notes. Trees naturally draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it away. But cutting them down releases the carbon back into the air.

Their value as carbon sinks has fueled an increased urgency in global efforts to halt deforestation. That, in turn, has led to a flood of global and regional pledges and targets aimed at preserving the world’s trees.

But focusing entirely on their carbon value could risk neglecting the other benefits that forests provide, such as their cultural importance to Indigenous communities.

Most critiques of international forest governance and management are focused almost entirely on deforestation rates. But that shows “a limited awareness of the diversity of needs and demands connected to forests globally,” the report warns.

Forest managers should investigate other metrics of success or failure, such as the social impacts of forest policies on the communities that depend on them.

The focus on carbon also has contributed to the growing popularity of market-based governance techniques, such as forest carbon markets — a system in which corporations can pay forest managers to preserve trees in exchange for carbon offsets.

Yet experts have warned that many carbon offset schemes may not be as effective as they claim — both at reducing emissions and at protecting trees. One recent study looked at 26 carbon offset projects around the world and found that most have not significantly reduced deforestation rates.

In addition, forest carbon markets can shut local communities out of forest management discussions in their home regions. And they run the risk of prioritizing short-term financial gain over long-term advances in sustainable forest management, the report warns.

These kinds of market-based incentives “risk perpetuating inequalities and producing perverse effects on sustainable forest management,” said report co-author Constance McDermott, a social scientist and expert on forest governance at the University of Oxford, in a statement. “Non-market-based mechanisms such as state regulation and community-led initiatives offer important alternative pathways for just forest governance.”

So while combating climate change is a crucial component of global forest management, the report suggests, it shouldn’t be the only priority.

“Measuring governance has mainly been related to the deforestation rate as the main indicator,” said study co-author Daniela Kleinschmit, vice president of IUFRO, in a statement. “However, forests provide many goods and services essential for people, which is why the effectiveness of international forest governance should also be measured against these needs.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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