Wounded Tropical Forests Now Emit 425 Million Tons of Carbon Each Year — Restoration, Fossil Fuel Emissions Cuts Now Urgent

In his seminal piece — Collapse — Jared Diamond documented how a number of civilizations who failed to protect their forests ultimately also experienced severe systemic decline.

Forests provide innumerable ecosystem services. They filter the air and water, provide a habitat for helpful plants and animals, prevent erosion, sequester moisture that enables healthy rainfall patterns. To keep forests safe and to nourish them is to keep the land itself safe. To keep life safe. To, ultimately, keep human civilizations safe.

In other words, a city or nation cannot healthily exist without healthy forests to support it.

Mistreated Tropical Forests become Carbon Source

From the point of view of confronting climate change, maintaining healthy forests is also essential. Healthy forests sequester more carbon — keeping that carbon locked in plants and soils. Unhealthy forests do the opposite — they release carbon stored over years and decades.

Since time immemorial, short-sighted forms of human civilization have harmed forests by cutting down too many trees, by killing off the creatures that support healthy forests, or worse, by burning the forests down. Ultimately, most of those civilizations also cut their own life-spans short. In the present day, we see this kind of harmful activity throughout the tropics. And, as a result, the tropical forests which have done us such an amazing service by drawing down a substantial portion of the fossil-fuel based carbon emission are ailing.

(In this image from Earth Nullschool, we can see high present carbon dioxide concentrations at the Earth’s surface. High CO2 concentrations show up in light colors. Low CO2 concentrations show up in dark colors. As you can see in the above image, the rainforest regions of the Amazon and Equatorial Africa are presently drawing down a considerable amount of atmospheric CO2 — which is generating a lower local concentration. That said, these forests do not draw down as much carbon as they used to. They have been disrupted by harmful human activity such as clear cutting and hunting of key species. As a result, through decay, fire, and drought, these forests are now emitting more carbon than they take in on net.)

According to a recent report out of the journal Science, about 425 million tons of carbon are being released, on net, from tropical forests around the world each year. This is equivalent to about 4 percent of global human emissions (primarily from fossil fuel burning) of around 11 billion tons of carbon each year. In other words, poor forest management is already amplifying the impact of fossil fuel based climate change.

The tropical forest carbon release occurred between 2003 and 2014. Study authors noted in The Guardian:

“This shows that we can’t just sit back. The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing. As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more.”

These same authors attributed this turning of a net carbon sink into a net carbon source primarily to poor land management practices. Primary sources of harm and loss involved the “thinning of tree density and the culling of biodiversity below an apparently protected canopy – usually as a result of selective logging, fire, drought and hunting.” More of the forested land has been turned over to developers and hunters when the land should have been set aside for protected parks and for the use of indigenous peoples whose ways of living help to support forest ecosystems.

An Urgent Need to Rapidly Cut Carbon Emissions While Restoring Healthy Forests

While human-caused climate change is now adding pressure to tropical forests, poor land management is presently a greater source of harm. In the past, sustainability-minded scientists had assumed that tropical forests would remain mostly functional as a carbon sink until warming approached 3-4 C above late 19th Century averages. At that point, heat alone will be enough to wring carbon out of these forests on net. But harmful human activity has pushed that time forward to the first decade of the 2000s.

Ultimately, the early failure of forests as a tropical carbon sink means that there’s less of a so-called carbon budget available. At this blog, we have long asserted that the effective carbon budget for a safe Earth at this time is basically zero. What this means is that some bad climate outcomes such as worsening weather, reduction of habitability in the Equatorial and near-Equatorial region, possible disruptions to growing seasons, declining ocean health for at least the next century, and sea level rise forcing mass abandonment of coastal settlements are already possible, likely, or happening now. Any addition of carbon thus makes an already troubling situation worse. That said, rapid cuts to fossil fuel emissions can still prevent worse outcomes such as more rapid sea level rise, much worse weather, very extreme heat rendering large regions practically uninhabitable for present societies, and a potentially worst-in-class global mass extinction associated with a hothouse ocean anoxic event.

(How removal of large animals through hunting and poaching can harm a forest’s ability to sequester carbon. Image source: Carbon Brief.)

Present science pointing toward loss of Tropical forests as a carbon sink means that our window is, again, rather smaller than past scientific oracles previously identified. The urgency for rapid carbon emissions cuts, therefore, could not be greater. But we also need to protect and restore forest vitality — which will be necessary to help the natural world bounce back from the insult we’ve already produced.

From study author Wayne Walker:

“We need to be positive. Let’s turn tropical forests back into a sink. We need to restore degraded areas. As far as technology for reducing carbon is concerned, this is low-hanging fruit. We know how to protect and sustain forests. It’s relatively cost effective.”

To be very clear, without emissions cuts to zero and subsequent atmospheric carbon drawdown substantial enough to prevent 3-4 C warming, these forests will eventually be in trouble due to the very harmful impacts of rising heat alone. So we need to do both. And we need to do it now.

Links:

Tropical Forests are Now a Net Carbon Source

Alarm as Study Reveals Tropical Forests are a Huge Carbon Source

Earth Nullschool

Carbon Brief

Collapse

Hat tip to Umbrios

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21 Comments

  1. Genomik

     /  October 9, 2017

    Sorry off topic but WOW at least 1500 homes destroyed in last 24 hours. I’ve never seen anything like it. It went to 45,000 acres overnight so fast there’s barely any firefighters there yet. The news shows their news crews watching home after home incinerate even as there’s barely any firefighters there yet.

    This could be a historical fire. Major cities are at risk.

    http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-napa-fires-20171009-story.html

    Reply
    • Genomik

       /  October 9, 2017

      late in the season in Northern California the wind often blows from the east. It brings hot dry winds and yesterday the winds were up to 50mph and humidity down to 10-15%! It was one of the rainiest years in California history this winter so the fuel is at record levels.

      Also just last month the Bay Area broke all time heat records with San Francisco going to 106.

      These extremes are predicted by climate change. Extreme weather and if that’s not extreme I don’t know what is.

      The last few years this same area has been hit by enormous fires destroying hundreds of homes. I’ve already had 3 friends lose their homes.

      The weather is supposed to stay this way till Tuesday and these fires are mostly 0% contained. They are actually in cities such as Santa Rosa.

      It went from 200 acres to 20,000 in hours and now 45,000. They are barely even fighting the fires they are mostly rescuing people as the fires are in densely populated residential areas.

      Crazy.

      Reply
    • Thanks for this, Genomik and … Holy hell.

      Reply
    • Genomik

       /  October 9, 2017

      Hope this link works its a tweet with satellite from GOES-16 showing an 8 hour period and how rapidly these fires exploded.

      https://mobile.twitter.com/PeskyHeart/status/917362585430663171

      Reply
  2. Suzanne

     /  October 9, 2017

    Reposting in case you missed it:

    “This Man is Building an Army of Environmental Voters to Rival the NRA Turnout”
    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/environemental-voter-project_us_59d54fd3e4b0cde45872c35a?ncid=engmodushpmg00000003

    Here is the website in case you want to check it out for yourself…
    http://www.environmentalvoter.org/sign-the-pledge/thanks

    Reply
    • Suzanne

       /  October 9, 2017

      Also, they are holding a GOT (E) V webinar ….check it out:
      On Facebook…
      GOT(E)V Training!
      Public · Hosted by Environmental Voter Project and Action Together New Jersey
      GoingShare
      clock
      Wednesday, October 18 at 7 PM – 8 PM
      Next Week · 46–68°Sunny

      Reply
    • Thanks for reposting. Will try to have a piece out on this over the next couple of days.

      Reply
  3. As often, asif has a thread on wildfires that includes lots of info and photos, if anyone wants to supplement roberts excellent work here.

    https://forum.arctic-sea-ice.net/index.php/topic,1368.msg131030.html#msg131030

    Some of the photos look like a nuclear bomb was dropped. Which calls to mind the Hansen lecture about how we are adding the energy equivalent of 400,000 atom bombs to the atmosphere every day (though I think it’s a bit higher now).

    These are the ‘bombs’ that are now falling on us…We have been basically at war with the future, and ‘winning’…but now that future is upon us, and even as we continue to wage war on our children and now on ourselves…time to lay down our (carbon) ‘arms.’

    Reply
  4. John Smith

     /  October 10, 2017

    Sadly, the huge amount of forest destruction is not just restricted to the areas mentioned in the above report. In Australia, lax land clearance controls have led to an upsurge in the clearance of forested lands, especially in Queensland. Reports suggest that the clearance rates have negated any gains from actions to curb CO2 emissions in Australia.
    See:
    http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/inexplicable-huge-surge-in-landclearing-not-picked-up-in-emissions-data-20171005-gyv0cc.html
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-19/land-clearing-rates-qld-need-to-be-lowered-new-study/8628524
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/06/queensland-tree-clearing-wipes-out-federal-emissions-gains
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/05/alarming-rise-in-queensland-tree-clearing-as-400000-hectares-stripped

    Reply
    • If emissions rates are falling, then it impacts future emissions rates as well. For example, a declining emissions rate will result in far less emissions than a business as usual compounding growth rate. So if Australian emissions fell by 4 percent over two years when the annual growth rate was 2 percent but poor forest management wiped out 4 percent, then you’re still 4 percent lower emissions than you would have been in the past. And there would have been a high likelihood, given Australia’s present policies, that land management would have added to a higher emissions pathway from fossil fuels if that pathway had been maintained — resulting in emissions growth both from industry and from deforestation.

      So you have to be precise with figures and language. Otherwise you create a false impression that emissions reductions are not helping. They’re helping. It’s just that poor land management is counter-productive and we need to apply that as an additive measure just as we need to work on population restraint and consumption restraint.

      All these activities have an impact — positive if moved in the right direction, negative if going the other way. But we should be clear that the primary problem regarding carbon emissions is direct emissions from fossil fuels. The various other responses, though additive and harmful, are secondary aspects of the climate crisis although, in themselves, they produce harmful results if managed poorly.

      Reply
  5. I known that this is an old article already… a few days without eletricity here and there are 3 new articles to read! Your pace is incredible fast, Robert!

    But I have to comment this: the light color arch over Brasil in the map… exactly where the Arch of Fire is… and the lighter mist over Matopiba… it´s expected, but frightening how the sattelite images match the destruction in the ground.

    Reply

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