COLUMBUS, Ohio — Deforestation, or cutting down our planet’s trees for various uses, has long been considered a major cause of increased carbon in the environment. It’s undeniable that cutting down trees results in more carbon being released, but a surprising new study conducted at Ohio State University and Yale University finds that prior estimates regarding the amount of damage being done to the environment as a result of deforestation may have been greatly exaggerated.
Previous research had concluded that cutting down trees led to 484 billion tons of carbon being released, which would account for about a third of all manmade emissions, since 1900. However, this new set of research, which accounted for reforestation strategies (planting more trees, forest management initiatives), estimates that only 92 billion tons of carbon have entered the environment due to deforestation since 1900. That’s led the study’s authors to conclude deforestation’s contributions to climate change as “hugely overrated,” in a release.
“There was a significant shift toward treating forests as a renewable, rather than nonrenewable, resource in the last century, and we estimate that those reforestation and forest management efforts have led to a far smaller carbon burden on the environment,” explains Ohio State professor of environmental and resource economics Brent Sohngen in the statement.
According to Sohngen and his team, previous research conducted on this matter focused on trees’ natural regrowth patterns and neglected to account for human intervention.
“Manmade land use and land-use change has had a relatively small effect on carbon emissions compared to the almost 1,300 billion tons of industrial carbon emissions during the same time period,” he adds.
“Previous estimates overestimated net emissions because they did not take account of the planting and management of global forests over the last 70 years that was undertaken to build a renewable timber forest,” notes study co-author Robert Mendelsohn of Yale. “This forest renewal was a market response to the expectation that old-growth timber was going to run out by the 1990s. Companies started planting and managing forests in the 1950s to fill this gap, and the timber industry quietly switched from being a nonrenewable mining industry to a renewable forest-crop industry.”
The study’s authors believe that environmental activists should focus the majority of their attention on industrial carbon emissions, not deforestation. All that being said, though, they still stress that trees have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. As such, it is imperative that the world’s governments continue to implement policies, laws, and incentives that will ensure the Earth’s trees are protected, or at least adequately replaced in the event of removal.
“Forestry and land use are blamed for being an enormous source of climate change, but they’re not an enormous source. The energy sector is an enormous source, and that’s where we should focus our attention – that and looking for ways to maximize our forests’ role in protecting the environment,” Sohngen concludes.
“It is possible to manage the world’s forests to store more carbon than they currently do. Some of this can be stored in near-permanent tropical forests that are simply not cut at all and some can be stored in managed forests,” Mendelsohn explains.
The study is published in the Journal of Forest Economics.