Review

Climate-driven risks to the climate mitigation potential of forests

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, eaaz7005
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz7005

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Risks to mitigation potential of forests

Much recent attention has focused on the potential of trees and forests to mitigate ongoing climate change by acting as sinks for carbon. Anderegg et al. review the growing evidence that forests' climate mitigation potential is increasingly at risk from a range of adversities that limit forest growth and health. These include physical factors such as drought and fire and biotic factors, including the depredations of insect herbivores and fungal pathogens. Full assessment and quantification of these risks, which themselves are influenced by climate, is key to achieving science-based policy outcomes for effective land and forest management.

Science, this issue p. eaaz7005

Structured Abstract

BACKGROUND

Forests have considerable potential to help mitigate human-caused climate change and provide society with a broad range of cobenefits. Local, national, and international efforts have developed policies and economic incentives to protect and enhance forest carbon sinks—ranging from the Bonn Challenge to restore deforested areas to the development of forest carbon offset projects around the world. However, these policies do not always account for important ecological and climate-related risks and limits to forest stability (i.e., permanence). Widespread climate-induced forest die-off has been observed in forests globally and creates a dangerous carbon cycle feedback, both by releasing large amounts of carbon stored in forest ecosystems to the atmosphere and by reducing the size of the future forest carbon sink. Climate-driven risks may fundamentally compromise forest carbon stocks and sinks in the 21st century. Understanding and quantifying climate-driven risks to forest stability are crucial components needed to forecast the integrity of forest carbon sinks and the extent to which they can contribute toward the Paris Agreement goal to limit warming well below 2°C. Thus, rigorous scientific assessment of the risks and limitations to widespread deployment of forests as natural climate solutions is urgently needed.

ADVANCES

Many forest-based natural climate solutions do not yet rely on the best available scientific information and ecological tools to assess the risks to forest stability from climate-driven forest dieback caused by fire, drought, biotic agents, and other disturbances. Crucially, many of these permanence risks are projected to increase in the 21st century because of climate change, and thus estimates based on historical data will underestimate the true risks that forests face. Forest climate policy needs to fully account for the permanence risks because they could fundamentally undermine the effectiveness of forest-based climate solutions.

Here, we synthesize current scientific understanding of the climate-driven risks to forests and highlight key issues for maximizing the effectiveness of forests as natural climate solutions. We lay out a roadmap for quantifying current and forecasting future risks to forest stability using recent advances in vegetation physiology, disturbance ecology, mechanistic vegetation modeling, large-scale ecological observation networks, and remote sensing. Finally, we review current efforts to use forests as natural climate solutions and discuss how these programs and policies presently consider and could more fully embrace physiological, climatic, and permanence uncertainty about the future of forest carbon stores and the terrestrial carbon sink.

OUTLOOK

The scientific community agrees that forests can contribute to global efforts to mitigate human-caused climate change. The community also recognizes that using forests as natural climate solutions must not distract from rapid reductions in emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Furthermore, responsibly using forests as natural climate solutions requires rigorous quantification of risks to forest stability, forests’ carbon storage potential, cobenefits for species conservation and ecosystem services, and full climate feedbacks from albedo and other effects. Combining long-term satellite records with forest plot data can provide rigorous, spatially explicit estimates of climate change–driven stresses and disturbances that decrease productivity and increase mortality. Current vegetation models also hold substantial promise to quantify forest risks and inform forest management and policies, which currently rely predominantly on historical data.

A more-holistic understanding and quantification of risks to forest stability will help policy-makers effectively use forests as natural climate solutions. Scientific advances have increased our ability to characterize risks associated with a number of biotic and abiotic factors, including risks associated with fire, drought, and biotic agent outbreaks. While the models that are used to predict disturbance risks of these types represent the cutting edge in ecology and Earth system science to date, relatively little infrastructure and few tools have been developed to interface between scientists and foresters, land managers, and policy-makers to ensure that science-based risks and opportunities are fully accounted for in policy and management contexts. To enable effective policy and management decisions, these tools must be openly accessible, transparent, modular, applicable across scales, and usable by a wide range of stakeholders. Strengthening this science-policy link is a critical next step in moving forward with leveraging forests in climate change mitigation efforts.

Effective use of forests as natural climate solutions depends on accounting for climate-driven risks, such as fire and drought.

Leveraging cutting-edge scientific tools holds great promise for improving and guiding the use of forests as natural climate solutions, both in estimating the potential of carbon storage and in estimating the risks to forest carbon storage.

ILLUSTRATION: DAVID MEIKLE

Abstract

Forests have considerable potential to help mitigate human-caused climate change and provide society with many cobenefits. However, climate-driven risks may fundamentally compromise forest carbon sinks in the 21st century. Here, we synthesize the current understanding of climate-driven risks to forest stability from fire, drought, biotic agents, and other disturbances. We review how efforts to use forests as natural climate solutions presently consider and could more fully embrace current scientific knowledge to account for these climate-driven risks. Recent advances in vegetation physiology, disturbance ecology, mechanistic vegetation modeling, large-scale ecological observation networks, and remote sensing are improving current estimates and forecasts of the risks to forest stability. A more holistic understanding and quantification of such risks will help policy-makers and other stakeholders effectively use forests as natural climate solutions.

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