Surprise: Old-growth forests soak up CO2
Woodlands in developed world also absorb CO2. What will impact be on global climate talks?
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Half of the primary forests on the planet grow in temperate and boreal areas. These forests, which include old-growth forests, lock up some 1.3 billion tons of carbon a year, according to recently published research conducted by Luyssaert and colleagues from the United States, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Britain. Forests that are 200 years old or older within those primary forests continue to sequester an estimated 2.4 tons of carbon per hectare (about 2.5 acres) each year. The results appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of the journal Nature.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, earlier this summer, Canada’s Ontario province took a huge step in preservation by setting aside 55 million acres of its boreal forests for protection. While details remain to be worked out, the move drew praise from a wide range of scientists. Canada took the move in no small part because of the “carbon sink” the forests represent. The forests have locked up a lot of carbon in vegetation and soils.
Meanwhile, in Australia, Dr. Makey finds that both the Australian government’s carbon-accounting approach as well as that of the IPCC underestimate the amount of carbon locked up in Australia’s intact natural forests. If left undisturbed, the country’s eucalyptus forests would retain 9.3 billion tons of carbon, versus the 3.1 billion tons the IPCC estimates is there, he claims.
While noting that the work on old-growth forests is “an important scientific study” for what it reveals about primary and old-growth forests, the policy prescription – at least as it applies to developed countries – is the wrong way to go, says Andrew Weaver. He’s a climate modeler at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a lead author for the IPCC’s latest series of reports on global warming.
“The danger is trying to get credit for doing nothing,” Dr. Weaver says. In 1997, “we might have been able to argue that,” but emissions have grown so much since then “that we can’t do that anymore.”
Still, in a post-Kyoto agreement, temperate and boreal forests in developed countries could well be viewed as a potential source of CO2, “to be managed like any other source,” says Nigel Purvis, a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future in Washington. And while that probably won’t include credits for avoided deforestation for developed countries at the international level, “under the domestic laws of these countries, there needs to be positive and negative incentives to manage emissions and the carbon stock” in their forest sectors.