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How to strengthen the biosphere

How can we strengthen the biosphere to take up more carbon? In this article, we discuss some potential options.
Beech Trees
© University of Exeter

Land-use change accounts for around one-fifth of total carbon dioxide emissions from human activity. So, what can we do about it?

Reducing deforestation and degradation

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to reduce emissions from land-use change is to stop changing the land! Reducing deforestation and forest degradation can make a major contribution to strengthening the land carbon sink.

But it requires major societal shifts, including changing consumer choices in faraway places and changing incentives for local people to protect forests. Hence we need to think about all of the sustainable development goals when considering how to reduce deforestation.

In Indonesia and Brazil, deforestation continues to be a problem largely because people’s livelihoods depend on it. If you want to solve an environmental problem, then you need to tackle the societal and economic problems underlying it.

The United Nations REDD+ program

The United Nations REDD+ program provides incentives for developing countries to reduce deforestation and maintain their forest stocks by creating a financial value for the forest stock. If a country maintains or expands its forests, then they are rewarded with payments proportional to the extent of their action.

This helps tackle both environmental and development issues in a sustainable approach. REDD+ also increases biodiversity, protects vulnerable and threatened species and allows countries development opportunities.

Deforestation - logs in the foreground from recently deforested trees while remaining woodland is in the background Can REDD+ help stop deforestation?

Planting and Rehabilitation

Perhaps the best way to combat land-use change is to reverse it! Afforestation and forest regeneration schemes are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to strengthen the land carbon sink. This is increasingly important on abandoned agricultural land and is even being extended to our cities.

In China, the ‘Great Green Wall’ (officially known as the Three-North Shelter Forest Program) is a 4,500km long wall of trees that are being planted and due to be finished by 2050. This is designed to hold back the expansion of the Gobi desert and has contributed to China’s astonishing turnaround in carbon sequestration.

Planting schemes on this scale are few and far between. But there are numerous local activities. Consider what’s happening around you. On the Streatham campus at the University of Exeter, our grounds team maintain over 10,000 trees to reduce the carbon footprint of the University.

For every tree that needs to be removed, more are replaced in other parts of the campus. In the picture below, you can see a small woodland area running through the heart of the University. This was likely planted in the 1930s and continues to be maintained and expanded.

Streatham Campus, University of Exeter The Streatham campus at the University of Exeter.

Sustainable Management of existing forests

Sustainably managing forests involves some form of protection, policy or legislation that is legally binding and maintains or improves forests. Deforestation cannot take place in protected forests and sustainable management can ensure they are more resilient to pressures such as climate change.

For example, maintaining forest biodiversity and good quality soils means that they are better protected against extreme events such as droughts.

In the UK, the Forestry Commission has outlined three objectives to protect these ecosystems – in priority order:

  • protecting the nation’s trees, woodlands and forests from increasing threats such as pests, diseases and climate change
  • improving their resilience to these threats and their contribution to economic growth, people’s lives and nature
  • expanding them to further increase their value

Part of this involves education, and managed woodlands in the UK are often used as educational tools. This is a very easy way to help the public better understand forests and the need to protect them. Increasing public awareness helps people think and act more sustainably.

In effect, the Forestry Commission is asking the local community to do their bit in preserving their environment. This makes sense in the UK where the recreational value of forests and woodlands to people typically exceeds the value of the timber in the trees.

© University of Exeter
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