Researchers at Wageningen UR are studying how REDD+ can help to slow down climate change. For example, through smarter logging methods, better management of tropical peatlands, and by keeping an eye on the dynamics of the ecosystem of the Amazon.
But what exactly is the relationship between forests and climate change? Trees absorb carbon dioxide and fix carbon in the form of wood. Young trees absorb more carbon than older ones. When trees are cut, carbon is released as carbon dioxide emissions. CO2 is emitted rapidly when the trees are burned, or slowly if the wood and leaves decay naturally. Deforestation is mainly driven by the conversion of forests to agricultural land. Forests are being depleted at a rate of approximately 13 million hectares per year, which is just over one percent of the total global forest cover, at 1.2 billion hectares. Approximately 1.5 gigatons of carbon are released annually due to tropical deforestation. This represents about 20 percent of annual emissions, and even exceeds the amount emitted by the global transport sector.
Most REDD+ projects aim at reducing emissions by stopping forest being cut. However, forest degradation also plays an important role, according to Pieter Zuidema, Associate professor at the Forest Ecology and Forest Management Group. In about 400 million hectares of tropical forest, commercially interesting trees are being selectively logged, leaving the forest degraded. Often, only a couple of trees are cut per hectare. But for every tree logged selectively, ten to twenty others are severely damaged. Research shows that improved logging, better planning of roads to transport trees, and more controlled felling can all help to decrease the impact on the remaining forest. It is projected that about 0.16 gigatons of carbon, or 10% of global carbon emissions caused by deforestation, can be saved by smarter logging methods. ´Better forest management does make a difference, and REDD could be an incentive to do so. Training of forest workers could be paid for by revenues from selling emissions rights.´
PeatlandsApart from forests, tropical peatlands are an important carbon sink. Many peatlands are being drained and transformed into oil palm plantations. This changes them from an important sink, into an important source of carbon dioxide, due to the oxidation of peat and the burning of peat. Researchers at Wageningen UR are involved in projects studying how peatlands can be managed in order to maintain their function as a carbon sink, and how REDD+ can help encourage this.
Forests affect climate change, but climate change also affects forests. More CO2 in the atmosphere and a higher temperature could stimulate trees to grow faster and thus store more carbon. However, ecosystem dynamics could have other outcomes as well. There are indications that climate change can cause forest dieback in the Amazon. If the rainforest gets drier, the ecosystem could change into a savannah, which in turn would have a dramatic effect on carbon emissions. The research project Amazalert, led by Alterra researcher Bart Kruijt, is developing an early warning system that monitors the effects of climate change on the Amazon, and is studying how REDD+ could be used in this.