Why you can bet your life on forests

Forests – all around the world – matter so much you can bet your life on them.

Forest conservation and management might sound dry – but in reality is a dynamic, rapidly evolving and large-scale (global) issue with tremendous capacity. Forests help support your quality of life and will undoubtedly play a central role in mitigating climate change.

Globally, forests are being cut down, fragmented and degraded at a wholly unsustainable rate. My home country Australia has cleared roughly 40% of our native forests, and most of what’s left is now highly degraded. In Malaysian Borneo, where I travelled to conduct research on rainforest trees this year, the battle march of agricultural expansion and logging will see intact forests retricted entirely to the limits of protected conservation areas by 2030 – roughly 7% of the original forested area.

sabah_aerial_0715: Tropical forest degradation for timber production in Borneo
Forest degradation by logging in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Image credit: Rhett Butler of conservation news service MongaBay (www.mongabay.com)

Diminished forest cover influences regional climate and can lead to drier, hotter conditions, which can reinforce the loss of trees and conservation potential. Forest clearing also fragments the forest, which increases the length of forest edges along which trees are exposed to greater disturbance and more adverse conditions. This disproportionately increases the death of large trees. What’s more, forest degradation diminishes the supply of ecosystem services – that is the things we value as humans, like producing oxygen, securing watersheds and providing space to enjoy nature.

And forests store carbon. Tonnes of it. In fact, the aboveground portions of tropical forests (trees and co.) alone are estimated to store some 247 billion tons of carbon – equivalent to roughly 6 years of human emissions from fossil fuels. So how do forests do it?

“We now have the opportunity to restore forests at an unprecedented scale.”

First, trees take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and recruit this carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, using it to make sugars that fuel the construction of their roots, leaves and trunks. The tree in your backyard might not look like much but consider that there are trillions of trees around our planet, all collectively sucking in carbon dioxide. This adds up.

Second, more ‘intact’ forests support higher biodiversity and, in turn, work better. We can think about any species – let’s go with a hornbill, pictured below – as having a distinct set of characteristics called ‘traits’ and an optimal environment that suits these, called a ‘niche’. In this environment, the hornbill also performs a job or ‘function’, for example by distributing the seeds of fig trees to the forest floor. So each species has its own characteristics (traits), an environmental ‘niche’, and a role to play (function).

Rhinoceros Hornbills, Sarawak, Borneo
Hornbills in Sarawak. Image credit: feathercollector/Shuttershock

The more species a forest has, the more potential niches are occupied, and the more ‘jobs’ are carried out by the forests inhabitants. This gets a bit harder for most people to think about when we leave the hornbill example and instead consider trees. But take my word for it – each tree species also has its own characteristics, environment and functions, contributing to weather regulation, forest productivity and carbon sequestration in a unique way.

The moral of the story being – intact forests can do more for us than degraded forests.

What to do with the degraded forests we have left? 

Degraded forests still have tremendous potential. We now have the opportunity to restore forests at an unprecedented scale – planting hundreds of millions of trees lost to logging and agriculture to create a carpet of hungry, growing trees that will guzzle huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

This potential has landed forest restoration at the centre of a lively debate among forest ecosystem scientists and land managers. Should we plant trees to restore forest quality and sequester carbon? How should we approach this? How can we meet global climate mitigation targets at the same time as benefiting local stakeholders, often in under-developed countries where the impacts of deforestation tend to be most extreme?

What can you do? First, you can care more about forests. Understand that forests are like giant machinery, churning the atmosphere, supporting billions of organisms, and supporting life on Earth, including your own. Together with other REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) and forest management strategies, forest restoration provides roughly a third of all ‘natural climate solutions’ – strategies that use nature to help us in the fight against climate change.

Next, you can actively support forests. Support forest conservation and restoration initiatives. Almost anywhere in Australia, you can find an environmental community group doing good work. In my backyard, the ‘Friends of Mt Majura‘ is an excellent initiative who’s volunteers conduct weeding (fighting forest degradation by invasive pests) and replanting (restoration) on Mt Majura – a reserve on the fringes of Canberra that supports important, endangered Eucalyptus forest.

Or maybe you can share information online, write to your local representative in parliament or consider voting differently.

Whatever your contribution, opening ourselves to issues of logging, land clearing, pest invasion, and increasing incidence of fire in our forests, will help us place our collective fingers on the pulse of this leading issue. No matter how you can contribute to the fight for forests, what’s for certain is that our lives depend on them.


Links to further info and sources of the statistics I’ve used above.
Extreme Differences in Forest Degradation in Borneo: Comparing Practices in Sarawak, Sabah, and Brunei, Bryan et al. (2013) https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069679
Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonization, Bradshaw (2012) https://academic.oup.com/jpe/article/5/1/109/1294916
NASA map of carbon in tropical forests https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/earth20110531-i.html
Natural Climate Solutions, Griscom et al. (2017) https://www.pnas.org/content/114/44/11645

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