Welcome to CLIMATE MOMENTS, a series of essays sponsored by the Creation Care Committee of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church that address our changing climate and its impacts, as well as actions that can be taken to mitigate this potentially catastrophic phenomenon. The concept of Creation Care arises from our scriptural responsibility to tend and care for the works of God’s creation, Gen. 2:15. Today, this responsibility is illustrated most critically by the challenges of limiting climate change, given the severe impacts on the natural world and mankind that are probable if climate change is allowed to continue unchecked. Our goal for each issue is to provide useful information that may inspire you to become more engaged in positive action to constrain the scope and severity of climate change. In this issue, we address the calamity of deforestation. Scripture mentions thirty-seven different varieties of trees. In the beginning, God described trees that produce fruit and nuts as being given for food. (Gen. 2:29) Today, the most important quality of trees is their ability to absorb some of the carbon dioxide spewed by mankind’s combustion of fossil fuels, thus helping limit global warming.
Dr. Seuss’ beloved children’s book, The Lorax, features a character – the Lorax – who is dismayed by the ambitious plans of an avaricious entrepreneur, the “Once-ler”, to produce endless quantities of wondrous garments made from the diaphanous leaves of Truffula trees.1 From the Once-ler’s perspective, the sole value of Truffula trees was to provide raw material for his venture -- a myopic purpose that blinded him to the ecological benefits afforded by the trees. When the Once-ler began cutting the Truffula forest, the Lorax (a personification of conservationists) appeared before the Once-ler to protest his mindless exploitation of Truffula trees. The Lorax explained, “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” but, sadly, his words proved futile as the Once-ler’s venture eventually led to the near extinction of Truffula trees.2
Dr. Seuss, who wrote this book over 50 years ago, proved to be prescient concerning the probable future ills of deforestation, far ahead of most of his contemporaries. While he most likely did not understand the implications of deforestation for climate change,3 he certainly foresaw the severe adverse ecological impacts that could stem from the destruction of forests.
It is likely that even Dr. Seuss would be shocked at the scope of worldwide deforestation that has occurred over the past several decades as real-life Once-lers continue their voracious consumption of Earth’s forests.
Global Deforestation Trends
Indeed, global trends on deforestation are alarming. The world’s rainforests, the most important for mitigating climate change through their absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide, have been suffering substantial losses over the past three decades to a wide variety of development projects.
Brazil contains roughly two-thirds of the Amazonian rainforest – the world’s largest. Since 1970, 20% of Brazil’s rainforests (820,000 km2) have been cut down. Despite two brief periods (1990-1994 and 2006-2012) in which deforestation of the Amazon was substantially reduced, the deforestation rate accelerated again in 2015 and in 2021 reached the highest annual rate since 2008.4 Degradation of the Amazon rainforest has worsened to the point that one scientific assessment has concluded that in 2021 this area emitted more carbon dioxide than it absorbed.5
Indonesia – which currently has the world’s third largest rainforest – has lost 42.5% of its forested area since the early 1900’s. One bright spot concerning the general trend is that Indonesia’s annual rate of deforestation reached a record low in 2020 and was only 31% of the deforestation rate of 2017. Still, nearly 450 square miles of Indonesian rainforest disappeared in 2020.6
From a global perspective, the loss of forested areas is heart-wrenching. Roughly 1,621,600 square miles (420 million hectares) of forest have been destroyed since 1990. About 38,600 square miles of forest (slightly larger than the state of Indiana) were lost per year, on average, over the period of 2015-2020.7 However, the loss in 2020 was much higher at nearly 100,000 square miles. Every second, a forested area the size of a football field is cut down. If current trends continue, all of Earth’s rainforests will have disappeared by 2100.8
Even urban forests are under assault, as illustrated by a recent article9 in the Indianapolis Star that highlights a 2021 report by the Indiana Forest Alliance.10 The Star article reports that an average of 40 acres of natural woodlands within Indianapolis were lost to development projects each year over the period of 1999 through 2005 (more recent data were unavailable).11
A probable, partial explanation for mankind’s under appreciation of trees is that many people are unaware of the critical ecological and environmental benefits that trees quietly provide. A brief examination of these benefits and their valuation follows.
Ecological Services Provided by Trees and Their Valuation
A recent article12 identifies the following ecological services that trees provide to humanity. The researchers who authored this report also determined annual total values for each of the first three services for all forests within the United States (excluding urban forests):
- Sequestration and storage of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) [$58 billion];
- Filtration and removal of harmful air pollutants [$42.2 billion];
- Provision of wood products, food crops, etc. [$13.7 billion];
- Erosion control;
- Flood control;
- Natural cooling;
- Aesthetic and recreational benefits; and
- Wildlife habitat.
The researchers did not attempt to assign values to the last five listed services since insufficient data were available for that purpose. Thus, the total annual valuation of $114 billion (in 2010 U.S. dollars) for the first three services is a substantial undervaluation for all services provided by U.S. forests. Even with this undervaluation, the authors offer a key observation: the total “hidden” value of trees for carbon sequestration and pollution removal ($100.2 billion) greatly exceeds their conventional commercial value ($13.7 billion).13 Had values been available for the remaining services, this disparity would be much larger. The authors further warn that these critical ecological benefits are at risk because the continuing survival of their source – the trees – is threatened by pests, pathogens, and forest fires, all of which are exacerbated by worsening climate change.14
Numerous other scientific articles and reports address this topic and identify additional ecological and environmental services provided by trees. One relatively recent article deals with the benefits of urban forests.15 The author reports the following estimates of overall annual values for U.S. urban forests: “4.7 billion USD from energy conservation and 2.3 billion USD from avoided pollutant emissions . . ., 4.7 billion USD from air pollution removal . . ., 2 billion USD from carbon sequestration . . . .” 16 The Indiana Forest Alliance study estimated that the 59 square miles of urban forest in Indianapolis provides annual benefits totaling $258 million.17
Climate Change Mitigation Is the Most Critical Benefit from Trees
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent report – the Sixth Assessment Report – was issued on April 4, 2022.18 This report is clearly intended to warn mankind that time is quickly running out to make sufficient reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion and other human activities such that we can limit global warming at the end of this century to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above 1900 levels. The Earth is already being buffeted by serious climate change impacts as global warming has reached 1.1°C (1.98°F).
Climate scientists have carefully assessed what total amount of emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and other greenhouse gases can occur without causing more than a 1.5°C increase in global average temperature. This total amount of greenhouse gas emissions is referred to as the allowable carbon budget for a 1.5°C increase. Unfortunately, we (mankind) have allowed so much time to pass without significantly reducing those emissions that we are now confronted with the reality that we will have substantially exceeded the allowable carbon budget by the time emissions can be brought down to a net zero level. This means that to avoid incurring more severe, future impacts from worsening climate change, we not only have to reduce current carbon emissions to a net zero level (by roughly 2050) but we also need to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to remain within the carbon budget.
The clear implication of our stressed carbon budget is that forests are critically important since they are one of the most effective natural means of reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While various technological concepts for removing atmospheric carbon dioxide are under evaluation, none have been demonstrated to be practicably effective.
Trees Provide Additional Climate Benefits Beyond Carbon Removal
Newly published research (“Unseen Effects”) highlights that current climate policy is shortsighted in considering the capability of trees to remove and store atmospheric carbon dioxide as the sole mechanism by which trees help mitigate climate change.19 The authors of this research point out that several biophysical mechanisms – mainly, albedo, evapotranspiration, and canopy roughness – also have significant impacts on climate. Moreover, unlike CO2 removal, these biophysical mechanisms typically have more localized effects on climate and tend to vary in their net effect for forests located at different latitudes.20 For example, evapotranspiration produces cooling near the ground level as water evaporates from pores (stomata) in tree leaves. Canopy roughness refers to the irregular surface of the tops of trees that causes localized air turbulence as wind flows through the treetops.21 This mixing of air flows tends to enhance the near-ground cooling effect of evapotranspiration. Albedo refers to the fraction of light radiation that is reflected from an object. Generally, the darker an object, the lower is its albedo and the greater is the percent of light radiation absorbed by the object and the more the object is warmed. Since treetops tend to have low albedo, compared to bare soils or grassy vegetation, this factor works in opposition to the other two factors in a forested environment.
The research reported in Unseen Effects evaluates the combined climate impacts of carbon capture and the biophysical mechanisms and then further assesses the interplay between the impacts of carbon capture and the biophysical processes for different latitudinal zones (i.e., the tropics, the northern temperate zone, and the boreal zone). Following are some conclusions that emerge from this research.
As a general matter, the effects of CO2 capture on global temperature are “many times” greater than the impact of biophysical mechanisms, regardless of the latitude at which a forest is located. That said, the Unseen Effects research indicates that forests at all latitudes provide climate benefits on a local scale through the described biophysical processes although the amount of these benefits will vary with latitude.22 One of the local climate benefits of forests is that they moderate the maximum daily temperatures that occur throughout the year in the tropics and during summers in higher latitudes. In moderating maximum high temperatures, forests help reduce species extinctions, based on other new research showing that increases in maximum daily temperatures are more responsible for species extinction than increases in average temperature.23 The evapotranspiration effect also puts more moisture in the air which can produce higher local rainfall than otherwise would occur as temperatures increase. These benefits also help human populations living close to forests in adapting to the adverse impacts of increasing temperatures. A final point made by the authors: “In the tropics, . . . where forest carbon stocks and sequestration rates are highest, the biophysical effects of forests amplify the carbon benefits, thus underscoring the critical importance of protecting, expanding, and improving the management of tropical forests.”24
Preserving Mature Forests Is Better Than Reforestation
Given (i) the substantial deforestation that has occurred on a global scale and (ii) the crucial importance of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, there is an indisputable need for ambitious reforestation projects to restore formerly forested areas and plant new forests. However, it is emphatically important that the highest priority be placed on preserving existing forests. At least two reasons for such a priority are posited.
First, the large trees of mature forests absorb much higher volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere in comparison to a forest that is only a few years old. This is because large diameter, tall trees add much greater volume of tree mass in an annual growth cycle than young (smaller) trees. As a hypothetical example, we can compare the volume of new growth in a mature tree with a three-feet diameter that is fifty feet high with that of a young tree that is ten feet tall with a diameter of only 6 inches. Based on simplifying assumptions,25 the mature tree would add new volume in one year that is 29 times greater than that added by the young tree. This means that the mature tree would have absorbed 29 times more CO2 in that one year than the smaller, young tree.26 This advantage enjoyed by mature forests over relatively young, replanted forests with regard to their respective carbon sequestering capacities is elegantly touted in an article in a recent issue of the Smithsonian.27 The article describes how Bob Leverett, an amateur forester, was able to demonstrate from his study of mature Eastern white pine trees (over 150 years of age) that they gain 75 percent of their stored carbon mass after 50 years of age.
Second, mature forests have the further advantage that they are already accumulating carbon at such high rates in contrast to newly planted forests which will be storing carbon at much lower rates for many decades. When we are already far behind the pace of reduction of carbon emissions needed to stay within a 1.5°C carbon budget, it is nonsensical to give up the advantages in robust carbon removal afforded by existing mature forests. This doesn’t mean that plans for reforestation and afforestation28 should not be pursued aggressively – we will need new forests as well. But clearly, priority should be given to protecting existing mature forests because of their distinct advantage in carbon sequestration that is presently available.
Solutions to the deforestation disaster should not be hard to define and implement. We know what is needed. We need to incorporate knowledge of the valuable ecological services provided by trees – including, most critically, their value for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change – into policies and decision making to thoughtfully resolve competing pressures for preservation versus consumptive use of our trees. Such an informed appreciation should engender a worldwide determination to effectively protect existing forests throughout the world – and especially existing mature forests – so that we can preserve the capability of meeting our climate change mitigation targets. And highest priority needs to be given to protection of mature rainforests in the tropics.
But the political will to establish and effectively enforce such protections has been sorely lacking, as it has for almost all other actions needed for mitigating climate change. While there are some glimmers of hope – such as the substantial reductions in deforestation rates in Indonesia in the last few years, the opposite trend prevails in the Amazon and many other parts of the globe.
That the need for action is clear, rational, and scientifically and economically sound should be enough, but it isn’t. A major obstacle appears to be greed and/or feigned ignorance that persists among land developers, forest product businesses, owners of and investors in fossil fuel reserves, and the lobbyists and politicians who support them. Such greed leads to staggeringly short-sighted resistance to policies supporting protection for the world’s forests.
These circumstances leave little room to question that enforceable government regulations are critically needed NOW to protect and preserve our remaining forests so that their carbon absorbing capabilities remain intact and in use. Practically speaking, our trees – and particularly our mature trees – need to be treated as threatened and endangered species. Deforestation should be considered on a par with wildlife poaching.
Thoughtful consideration is needed to carefully design and implement tree farming reserves populated with fast-growing tree species that are planted and harvested on a staggered timeline. This would generate construction materials on a sustainable basis while the broader tree inventory needed for carbon absorption is not encroached upon.
Instead of the present wild-west approach to deforestation, we need a new social paradigm in which trees are assiduously protected, based on an informed understanding of the irreplaceable ecological services they provide. We MUST do better. Otherwise, the Lorax’ words of warning will haunt us forever: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”29
1Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), The Lorax, (1971). Reportedly, The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his many children’s books.
3 Only a few scientists were considering the potential for man-induced global warming in 1971 and many of those were employed by Exxon or other major oil companies.
4 Deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, Wikipedia.
5 K. Covey, et al., “Carbon and Beyond: The Biogeochemistry of Climate in a Rapidly Changing Amazon". Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. 4. (2021).
6 H. N. Jong, Deforestation in Indonesia hits record low, but experts fear a rebound, Mongabay, March 9, 2021.
7 Deforestation Facts and Statistics 2022 [Global Data], https://www.tonerbuzz.com/blog/deforestation-facts-and-statistics/.
9 S. Bowman, “Indianapolis’ urban forests worth $258 million. But they are disappearing to development.” Indianapolis Star, April 5, 2022.
10 J. Stant, R. Schnapp, and W. Allen, Forests for Indy, an Urban Forest Protection Strategy (Executive Summary), Indiana Forest Alliance and The Conservation Fund, 2021.
11 A current example of threated deforestation in Indianapolis involves Driftwood Hills Woods, three densely wooded lots totaling 10+ acres in northern Indianapolis that are under consideration for an office development project.
12 J. M. Cavender-Bares, et al., The hidden value of trees: Quantifying the ecosystem services of tree lineages and their major threats across the contiguous US, PLOS Sustainability and Transformation, April 5, 2022.
13 By “hidden” value, the authors mean that the values for carbon sequestration and pollution removal outside the context of point sources are not determined or addressed by typical market mechanisms. Historically, these related services have been viewed as economic externalities that exist outside established commercial markets. For carbon removal, this status is in transition with the advent in recent years of a nascent market for carbon offsets and with carbon pricing mechanisms adopted by some nations (though not the U.S.). The value of pollutant removal can be estimated by the cost of human diseases or ailments that otherwise may occur from exposure to the pollutants amenable to removal by trees.
14 While the threats to forest survival mentioned by the authors are significant, the burden of this article is to emphasize that long-term survival of trees faces a more serious threat of human exploitation.
15 David J. Nowak, Assessing the Benefits and Economic Values of Trees, Chapter 11 of Routledge handbook of urban forestry, F. Ferrini, et al., New York, NY 2017.
16 Ibid. The estimates for energy conservation and avoided air pollutant emissions are associated with the benefits of natural cooling from trees resulting from transpiration of water from tree leaves and shading provided by trees.
17 Op. cit., Forests for Indy.
18 IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6/.
19 D. Lawrence, M. Coe, et al., The Unseen Effects of Deforestation: Biophysical Effects on Climate, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, March 24, 2022.
20 Ibid., see Introduction.
23 C. Roman-Palacios, et al., Recent responses to climate change reveal the drivers of species extinction and survival, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020).
24 Op.cit., Unseen Effects.
25 The assumptions are that both trees: (i) are of the same species, (ii) add annual growth that is a quarter-inch thick, (iii) have trunks of uniform diameter over their entire length, and (iv) have a volume based solely on the tree trunk.
26 The simplified calculation used here yields a ratio of added tree volume that no doubt understates the actual differential since it ignores the disparities in added volume in the many branches of the two trees.
27 J. Diamond, The Old Man and the Tree, Smithsonian, January-February 2022.
28 Afforestation refers to the planting of new forests in areas not previously forested.
29 Op.cit., The Lorax.
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