Climate Change: Side effects of widescale forestation could reduce the net carbon removal benefit according to a Sheffield and Leeds university study

The side effects of widescale forestation could reduce carbon removal benefits by up to a third, according to a major study involving Yorkshire universities and international climate-change experts.

The research, published in the journal Science, provides a new insight into the broader impacts of forestation on the Earth's climate, indicating that its positive impact is potentially smaller than previously thought.

Carbon removal strategies, such as forestation, alongside reducing greenhouse gas emissions, have been recognised by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as essential measures to mitigate the risk of dangerous future climate change.

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By simulating global forest expansion with advanced computer modelling techniques, academics from the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Cambridge, and NCAR and WWF, found that while forestation increases absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, other complex Earth System responses could together partially offset these benefits by up to a third.

Dr James Weber.Dr James Weber.
Dr James Weber.

Dr James Weber, from the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences and lead author of the study, said: “The public are bombarded with messages about climate change, and the suggestion that you can plant trees to offset your carbon emissions is widespread. Many businesses now offer to plant a tree with a purchase, and some countries plan to expand, conserve, and restore forests.

Trees can help tackle climate change, but we need to be careful about relying on them. We need to evaluate forestation, and other climate change mitigation strategies, in detail. This will help identify limitations and unintended consequences so these can be minimised where possible.”

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The study, which simulated wide scale forestation under two future scenarios — one with minimal efforts to tackle climate change and another with extensive mitigation measures alongside forestation— found that forestation leads to increased CO2 removal.

However, it also reduces the reflectivity of the land surface (as trees are darker than grassland) and changes the atmospheric concentrations of other greenhouse gases (methane and ozone) and tiny particles called aerosols. Altogether, these indirect effects partially offset the CO2 reduction benefits, by up to 30 per cent.

The study also found that when forestation is implemented alongside other strategies to tackle climate change, such as reducing fossil fuel emissions, the negative impacts of these indirect effects are lower. This highlights the importance of combining forestation efforts with other strategies for more effective long-term climate action, says the University of Sheffield.

Dr Maria Val Martin, the university’s UKRI Future Leader Fellow and senior author of the study, said: “Drastic CO2 emission reductions along with large-scale removal of atmospheric CO2 are vital to combat climate change effectively. Our study provides a comprehensive analysis of the indirect climate impacts of forestation, revealing that they partially counter the climate benefits achieved through carbon sequestration. Understanding these indirect side effects is essential for developing effective solutions to achieving net-zero emissions.”

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Dr Stephanie Roe is the WWF global climate and energy lead scientist and was a lead author of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report. Also a co-author of this study, she said: “We know that forests are critically important for biodiversity, water, ecosystem services, and the climate. What this research shows is that the effectiveness of reforestation for climate mitigation declines significantly in higher latitudes and unless paired with deep emission reductions which reduces air pollution. It underscores the importance of properly planning reforestation efforts and adequately accounting for biophysical and future climate impacts in different latitudes and regions. Importantly, the study finds that preventing deforestation, when compared to reforestation efforts, is a far more efficient way to mitigate climate change.”

Dr Daniel Grosvenor, from the University of Leeds and the Met Office, and another co-author, added: “What's interesting about this study is that it examines the side effects of forestation that occur via changes in atmospheric chemistry, aerosol particles and surface reflectivity. It shows that the cooling impact of carbon dioxide removal from an extensive, but feasible, global forest expansion could be considerably reduced due to those side effects. This would make it harder than expected to mitigate climate change and to reach the Paris agreement target.”

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