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Do Forests Grow Better With Our Help or Without?

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Bournemouth, UK - Trees!Martin Keene/Zuma

This piece was originally published in Yale Environment 360 and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

When Susan Cook-Patton was doing a post-doc in forest restoration at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland seven years ago, she says she helped plant 20,000 trees along Chesapeake Bay. It was a salutary lesson. “The ones that grew best were mostly ones we didn’t plant, she remembers. “They just grew naturally on the ground we had set aside for planting. Lots popped up all around. It was a good reminder that nature knows what it is doing.

What is true for Chesapeake Bay is probably true in many other places, says Cook-Patton, now at The Nature Conservancy. Sometimes, we just need to give nature room to grow back naturally. Her conclusion follows a new global study that finds the potential for natural forest regrowth to absorb atmospheric carbon and fight climate change has been seriously underestimated.

Tree planting is all the rage right now. This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, called for the world to plant a trillion trees. In one of its few actions to address climate concerns, the US administration—with support from businesses and nonprofits such as American Forests—last month promised to contribute close to a billion of them—855 million, to be precise—across an estimated 2.8 million acres.

The European Union this year promised 3 billion more trees as part of a Green Deal; and existing worldwide pledges under the 2011 Bonn Challenge and the 2015 Paris Climate Accord set targets to restore more than 850 million acres of forests, mostly through planting. That is an area slightly larger than India, and provides room for roughly a quarter-trillion trees.

Planting is widely seen as a vital “nature-based solution to climate change—a way of moderating climate change in the next three decades as the world works to achieve a zero-carbon economy. But there is pushback.

Nobody condemns trees. But some critics argue that an aggressive drive to achieve planting targets will provide environmental cover for land grabs to blanket hundreds of millions of acres with monoculture plantations of a handful of fast-growing and often non-native commercial species such as acacia, eucalyptus, and pine. Others ask: Why plant at all, when we can often simply leave the land for nearby forests to seed and recolonize? Nature knows what to grow, and does it best.

Cook-Patton’s new study, published in Nature and co-authored by researchers from 17 academic and environmental organizations, says estimates of the rate of carbon accumulation by natural forest regrowth, endorsed last year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are on average 32 percent too low, a figures that rises to 53 percent for tropical forests.

The study is the most detailed attempt yet to map where forests could grow back naturally, and to assess the potential of those forests to accumulate carbon. “We looked at almost 11,000 measurements of carbon uptake from regrowing forests, measured in around 250 studies around the world, Cook-Patton told Yale Environment 360.

She found that current carbon accumulation rates vary by a factor of a hundred, depending on climate, soils,........

© Mother Jones

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