Forests and the Health of the Planet

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Outbreaks of the mountain pine beetle due to climate change are devastating mountain forests. Globally forests are stressed due to unsustainable management and global warming.The health of our forests directly impacts the health of the planet. The importance of forests to the Earth’s ecosystems cannot be overstated. Research shows that forest die-offs are on the increase and this troubling trend is being linked to global warming. Heat and water stress associated with climate change are making forests vulnerable to insect attacks, fires and other problems.

As reported in an October 2011 New York Times article, millions of acres of forests in the northern and central Rockies are dying. In Colorado, at least 15 percent of that state’s aspen forests are suffering due to a lack of water. The U.S. is not the only country where forests are succumbing to the effects of a warming climate, trees are also being impacted by climate change all around the globe.

The evidence for global warming continues to mount with March 2012 being the warmest in recorded history in the U.S. and January to March 2012 being the warmest first quarter on record in the lower 48 states. This is but the most recent data corroborating an increasingly irrefutable body of evidence.

Greenhouse gases are fueling global warming and we continue to pour massive amounts of these emissions into the atmosphere. About 10 billion tons of carbon is being dumped into the atmosphere every year from the combustion of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests. The concentration of the gas in the atmosphere has jumped more than 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution, and this could double or even triple this century.

Despite the wealth of data supporting global warming and the crucial importance of forests to planetary health, world industry leaders in wood materials are gathering in Seattle on April 11-13 to discuss the role of woody biomass for production of biofuels. According to a UBC study, wood-based biofuels could be a competitive industry by 2020. While biofuels offer questionable benefits to the planet, wood based biofuels are even more suspect.


Trees are being cut down much faster than they are being planted. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “World Culture Report: 1998,” during the period between 1990 - 1995, reforestation accounted for only 11% of the deforestation amount, meaning the world regenerated only a single tree for every ten burned down.

Total deforestation at the 1990 to 1995 rates eliminated approximately 45-50 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption per year. (This is based on the very general assumption that 2.9 tons of CO2 are absorbed per average hectare of “forest”). Reforestation at the 1990 to 1995 rates added back the capability to absorb just 5.5 million tons per year. From 1990 to 1995, close to one million square kilometers of forest were destroyed.

The destruction of forests continues unabated. Each day, at least 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest disappear from Earth. At least another 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest are degraded. Overall, FAO estimates that 10.4 million hectares of tropical forest were permanently destroyed each year in the period from 2000 to 2005, an increase from 1990-2000, when around 10.16 million hectares of forest were lost. Among primary forests, annual deforestation rose to 6.26 million hectares from 5.41 million hectares in the same period.

Trees are under siege all around the world, including euphorbia trees of southern Africa, Atlas cedars of northern Algeria, Australia’s Eucalyptus trees, Siberian forests, and the Amazon rain forests. In Sumatra alone, tens of thousands of hectares of forest land have been drained and cleared and this is driving elephants, tigers and orangutans to local extinction.

Carbon Absorption

In addition to providing habitat for a wide range of animal species, forests play a pivotal role in absorbing CO2. The most recent science suggests that trees absorb more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.

“[W]e’re recognizing the potential great value of trees and forests in helping us deal with the excess carbon we’re generating, we’re starting to lose forests,” said Thomas W. Swetnam, an expert on forest history at the University of Arizona.

Trees that have the ability to lock carbon into long-term storage, and they do so by making wood or transferring carbon into the soil. The wood may stand for centuries inside a living tree, and it is slow to decay even when the tree dies. However, if a forest burns down, much of the carbon stored in it will re-enter the atmosphere.

According to a 2011 estimate published Aug. 19 in the journal Science, when emissions from the destruction of forests are subtracted from the carbon they absorb, they are, on balance, packing more than a billion tons of carbon into long-term storage every year.

Even the forests that are being replaced are far less biodiverse and they have a diminished capacity to absorb carbon. This is a dangerous cycle; the fewer trees there are, the faster CO2 will rise and the more the remaining trees will be impacted by an ever warmer climate.  The loss of forests increases the levels of atmospheric carbon.

Burning of forests to make way for more agriculture in places like Brazil and Indonesia is particularly destructive because it ends their ability to absorb carbon and emits carbon back into the atmosphere.

Fires, Insects, Water and Extreme Weather

Wildfires, insect infestations and extreme weather are combining to decimate many forests. In the summer of 2011, wildfires destroyed huge swaths of U.S. forests stretching from the mountainous Southwest deep into Texas. Extreme weather–a corollary of climate change—is also imperiling forests around the world.

“Forests take a century to grow to maturity,” Werner A. Kurz, a leading forest scientist said, “It takes only a single extreme climate event, a single attack by insects, to interrupt that hundred-year uptake of carbon.”

Global warming is increasing the number, size and severity of forest fires, in North America, it is also contributing to the proliferation of forest destroying bugs like pine beetles which are surviving warmer winters in greater numbers.

Warmer winters are also causing snow to melt earlier, which is reducing the availability of water in summer. This then combines with warmer summer temperatures, which increases the water needs of trees.

“A lot of ecologists like me are starting to think all these agents, like insects and fires, are just the proximate cause, and the real culprit is water stress caused by climate change,” said Robert L. Crabtree, head of a center studying the Yellowstone region. “It doesn’t really matter what kills the trees — they’re on their way out. The big question is, are they going to regrow? If they don’t, we could very well catastrophically lose our forests.”

Unsustainable Forest Management

There is a powerful rationale to manage our forests more responsibly. While unsustainable forest management practices are economically counterproductive, sustainable practices offer a wealth of socio-economic benefits. There is real value to healthy intact and sustainably managed forests. One researcher demonstrated how a forest can be worth more than a goldmine.

As reviewed in a Mongabay.com article, ecologically unsustainable practices are proving to be economically ruinous in places like Indonesia. The Rajawali Institute for Asia at the Harvard Kennedy School of government estimates that by eliminating its natural capital for negligible gains, deforestation caused losses of $150 billion to Indonesia between 1990 and 2007.

An investigation by a task force set up by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono found that unsustainable forestry practices have cost 76,000 jobs in the sector in the Jambai province alone.

According to the Rand Corporation, particularly intense forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia have increased deaths by 22 percent.  Bad air quality can also send people to the hospital and increase asthma attacks, lowering productivity. One of Southeast Asia’s challenges is attracting global companies to locate high-level executive headquarters in the region, in part because of the intense air pollution exacerbated by forest fires.

It has been demonstrated that forests can even protect against tsunamis. Studies have shown that coastal mangrove forests can reduce tsunami flow by as much as 90 percent. (During the 2004 tsunami, villages that had cut down their mangroves were often wiped out while those that maintained them fared much better).

Trees are suffering from the ravages of climate change and this has catastrophic implications for life on the planet. The losses of forests have far reaching impacts that include agriculture, economic competitiveness and ultimately, human well-being. Even more significantly, the loss of trees irreparably undermines the Earth’s ability to heal itself. Forests are fundamentally important to the health and survival of the planet and therefore a crucial component of efforts to combat climate change.

To preserve our forests, we need to reduce emissions generated by burning fossil-fuels and deforestation, we also need to understand the overarching value of trees.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Biocharsolutions.com

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  1. Great article Richard on the value of forests, however, I question the mixed message you are sending with this statement – “While biofuels offer questionable benefits to the planet, wood based biofuels are even more suspect” – when the article that you link to has this to say – “In 2009, scientists touted bio char as a potential source of biofuel. Early lab results were promising, suggesting that biochar would lead to less carbon in the atmosphere while also improving crops and soil fertility.”

    Sustainable Land Development Goes Carbon Negative

  2. It’s a very good article, despite some minor quibbles. The print function on your website is atrociously bad, however, both in FF and IE. It’s one I wanted to save in hardcopy, so no snarky replies about burning up trees for unnecessary prints, thank you very much.

    • Hey Jim,
      Thanks for the comment. No snarky replies, I promise. In fact, I’ve just installed a new plugin to improve printing and pdf functions based on your feedback. I’m still tweaking it, but this should improve your experience in saving posts for hardcopy.

  3. This a good article. However, Loss of forests is far and beyond just the economic value, climate change and air pollution. The forests contain a universe of life which has taken millions of years to evolve and this vast biodiversity keeps our planet in health and balance. As the forests go so do many of these species. The loss is often irreversible. Healthy Forests, Healthy Humans. Much of it has to do with human irresponsibility in the drive for profits and this needs to be urgently addressed: SEE Biodiversity IS Life http://bit.ly/yA5aTo
    1.PALM OIL ECOCIDE – Ten News Australia VIDEO
    2.INDONESIA: PALM OIL Logging Corporations Deliberately Set Forest Fires to Extinguish Orangutan Population. ALL may be lost by years’ end
    3.Deforestation – What is the real impact?
    4.WATCH: “GREEN” – Ending Life in the Indonesian Rainforests: Documentary
    5.PALM OIL ECOCIDE – Video – Forests are falling across Borneo With All Life Within Them
    Thank you for caring about our crucial forests that help to sustain all life on this planet.

  4. [...] Illegal logging also causes significant damage to tropical forests by reducing biodiversity, destroying soil, damaging trees and releasing carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change. Every year illegal logging contributes to tropical forest loss, which in total is roughly the size of Pennsylvania. It is clear that forests are crucial to the health of the planet. [...]

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