The Marrakech Climate Change Conference is the next annual meeting of the Parties of the UN’s climate treaty. In conjunction with the conference, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is organising a themed event with an important message: Forests matter!
When we talk about the use of fossil coal, we seldom remember that the history of coal goes hand in hand with the history of the Earth’s forests. The warm and humid climate in the Carboniferous period approximately 300 million years ago sustained vast fern and horsetail forests. When the climate became drier, the forests receded and their enormous carbon storage was buried under sand and mud, where it gradually compressed to coal. Coal is what gave birth to the first industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century. Thus the beginning of industrialisation is linked to a change in climate millions of years ago, and our self-made dependency on coal outside the natural carbon cycle is actually dependency on ancient forests that vanished from Earth a long time ago.
What can we learn from the history of coal and the affects its usage has on the climate in the face of today’s climate challenges? The key message is the importance of forests in the natural carbon cycle; the carbon stores in forests and the carbon sink effect of growing trees.
The demand for wood-based products, innovative new uses for wood and the growing demand for certified products form the basis of the increase in sustainable and responsible use of forests, both as an increasingly common strategy and in terms of land surface area. The carbon sink effect in responsibly managed forests is one of their most important ecosystem services. Trees are the largest plants in the world, and they have a superior ability to bind and store large amounts of carbon.
In addition to providing the raw material for wood-based products and acting as carbon storage, trees and forests purify water, maintain biodiversity, produce food and medicine, protect against floods, prevent erosion, bind fine particles, produce oxygen, create landscape and nourish our mind and body. This kind of versatile joint production of ecosystem services is very competitive in sustainability reviews when we look for the smartest ways to use land in the midst of population growth and environmental trends.
The Paris Climate Agreement aims to achieve balance between all the world’s emissions and carbon sinks in the second half of the century. Favouring wood as raw material and promoting sustainable forestry are part of the bioeconomy solution.
During the fern forest period, humans did not even exist as a species. And yet later, these vast forests enabled us to move to the industrial period. The Earth’s forests have a critical role to play today as well, when we aim for sustainable use of renewable resources within the new bioeconomy framework.