Forests and Climate Change

Forests help us tackle climate change

Trees play a critical role in our environment as producers of oxygen, a home for wildlife, source of biodiversity and, for people, a connection to our natural world.

Forests can help to address climate change by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Because growing forests absorb and store carbon over an extended period of time they are known as carbon sinks.

A typical tree absorbs one tonne of carbon dioxide for every cubic metre's growth. They also produce the oxygen we breathe - almost ¾ tonne of oxygen for every cubic metre's growth. Trees play a critical role in helping to tackle climate change.

Reference: Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management

'Climate change cannot be won without the world's forests'

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, September 2008

Forests should be responsibly managed

Well-managed forests balance society's increasing demands for forest products and benefits, and the preservation of forest health and diversity. This balance is critical to the survival of forests, and to the prosperity of forest-dependent communities. There are a number of certification programs that identify when wood has been responsibly harvested.

High conservation value forests store massive amounts of carbon and support unique and vital biodiversity hotspots. They should be protected from clearing for any purpose including for wood products or plantations.

Well-managed forests will regrow

Young, vigorously growing trees have a higher rate of carbon dioxide absorption than mature trees. Trees grow and absorb the most carbon dioxide in their early to middle years and slow down as they reach maturity.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, converting them to cellulose molecules that make up wood, releasing oxygen back into the air. So carbon atoms are stored in the trees - in fact, half the dry weight of a tree is carbon atoms within cellulose molecules. This process is called photosynthesis and allows the tree to grow. For more detail on this process visit the interactive carbon cycle.

When a tree is harvested from a well-managed forest, about half of the carbon stays in the forest and the rest is removed in the logs, which are then converted into wood products. Once the harvested area is regenerated, either naturally or by planting seedlings, the forest once again begins to absorb and store carbon.

Some types of logging may produce lots of emissions.  Make sure you choose responsibly sourced wood (as recognised by FSC) to avoid this.  

The amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere could be greatly increased by harvesting regularly and using the wood in place of other materials that use fossil fuels during manufacturing, producing carbon dioxide. Of course, forests of high conservation value should be conserved and not harvested for any purpose.

‘In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest will generate the largest (climate change) mitigation benefit.'

IPCC 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, Mitigation

Increasing forest cover

The ideal scenario for climate change is one whereby well-managed forest cover increases alongside the increased use of responsibly sourced wood products.  This means an increase in the carbon stored in forests and wood products in turn reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  In North America and Europe where strong certification schemes, low carbon incentives for building and educated consumer demand has operated for many years, forests are already starting to increase.

According to 'The State of Europe's Forests 2011' report Europe's forests have been expanding at a rate of 0.8 million hectares every year for the past 20 years.  They are, therefore, absorbing more carbon dioxide now than they did 20 years ago.