Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Dr. Nadine Unger. Provocatively titled “To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees,” the column draws on one area of preliminary research from the vast realm of climate change research and asserts broad conclusions about the contributions of forests to climate change, which are likely to confuse more than help.
Clearly forests alone cannot solve the climate change issue. However, Dr. Unger labels the wisdom behind efforts to reduce tropical deforestation as wrong while also pointing out that deforestation produces a whopping 20 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions — yet conceding that living forests “generously mop up about a quarter of the world’s fossil-fuel carbon emissions each year.”
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that tropical deforestation leads to warming and the resulting soil degradation increases carbon emissions while lowering the land’s productivity. Northern boreal forests (like those in the snow-covered regions of Canada) may, over the long term, contribute to atmospheric warming by absorbing the sun’s energy. However, substantial research shows that during the next century, boreal forest growth will result in net cooling. Timing is everything with this issue, as we urgently address the many tipping points of climate change likely to have major near-term impacts on human life.
Dr. Unger also exaggerates the scientific consensus around volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that trees emit, which vary greatly depending on tree species, and questions the benefits of a hypothetical large-scale expansion of forests. There is no possibility of such an expansion on a global scale, as most forested regions remain at best, stable, or more likely, in decline because of such factors as logging, insects, disease, development and wildfires.
Finally, she significantly underplays the co-benefits of healthy forests — cleaner air, cleaner water, wildlife habitat and biodiversity among them. While the research of Dr. Unger and her colleagues deserves further exploration and scrutiny, it is misleading and harmful to present broad generalizations based on relatively new research as conclusive science.
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