People often refer to forests as the ‘lungs of the Earth.’ Trees are able to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transform it into oxygen through the process of photosynthesis, producing the air we breathe everyday. The carbon they absorb is then stored in the tree’s biomass (branches, trunks, leaves, and roots), where it remains sequestered until the tree either dies and decomposes, or is burned.
In a perfectly balanced scenario, the ratio of carbon dioxide being respired by all living organisms on Earth (directly or indirectly) would equal the amount being reabsorbed by the various carbon sinks (forests, oceans, soil, etc.). This relationship is often referred to as the carbon cycle, which at its core traces the multiple stages of the carbon molecule as it cycles through varied Earth systems. Forests are a key actor in this cycle, absorbing and regulating the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Post-industrial human activity, in the form of exploiting and destroying the planet, has resulted in this system becoming completely disequilibrated. Current carbon dioxide emissions (along with other greenhouse gases) have transformed our climate, the atmosphere, and the biosphere into a damaged, distorted, and increasingly fragile state.
Sadly, forests have been at the very nexus of this destruction since the onset of human activity. Agriculture, unsustainable land use, natural resource extraction, commodity production, and urban expansion have contributed to the destruction of nearly half of this forest cover, resulting in widespread habitat loss, biodiversity loss, and global warming.
As such, restoring forest cover across the globe emerges as a crucial factor in the mitigation of climate change. Afforestation, reforestation, and other nature-based solutions are potent strategies that work to reverse these losses. Afforestation refers to planting trees where there previously weren’t any, while reforestation speaks to replanting seedlings on land that has been cleared. These approaches, coupled with intensive monitoring and management after implementation, have the potential to contribute over one-third of the total climate change mitigation scientists say is required by 2030 (1). Another study suggests that the restoration of forests across the globe could capture up to 70 billion tons of carbon in plants and soils between now and 2050 (2).
As such, by harnessing the natural carbon-sequestration potential of forests, the revitalization of degraded forests and lands through thoughtful nature-based projects is key to achieving climate stability. Not only are they the most cost effective carbon-capture technology, but healthy forests are also home to the majority of the world's terrestrial biodiversity. Restoring them also restores vital ecosystem services that support both the vitality of vulnerable species and importantly, the livelihoods of local communities that depend on it. Now more than ever, we must prioritize the protection and restoration of forest ecosystems.
(1): Osipova, E., Emslie-Smith, M., Osti, M., Murai, M., Åberg, U., Shadie, P. (2020). IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN
(2): Cook-Patton S.C., S.M. Leavitt, D. Gibbs, N.L. Harris, et al. "Mapping carbon accumulation potential from global natural forest regrowth." Nature 585: 545-550, Sept 2020. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2686-x