The association between global warming and CO2 emissions is well established, as are the global socio-economic and ecological risks tied to climate change.
It is also clear from countless studies and numerous policy recommendations that forestry must play a role in the climate change mitigation prescription. Not only does forestry represent a cost-effective and efficient manner to mitigate CO2 emissions, forests also serve as carbon sinks that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In January 2013, Geophysical Research Letters published a report indicating that warming trends would continue even in the far-fetched scenario that all greenhouse gas emissions ceased immediately. Accordingly, carbon extraction strategies, rather than an approach that simply reduces the rate of emissions must be considered. Forests have the capacity of actually extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, storing the carbon in the live forest stand.
Scientists and policy makers throughout the world have identified forestry as a critical element in the climate change struggle, however no panacea-model has been presented that carries the potential to seriously achieve the necessary level of CO2 extraction in order to avoid a catastrophic 450 parts per million atmospheric load of CO2.
Through 50+ years of applied research and demonstration in tropical forestry, Reforest The Tropics, Inc. (RTT) has developed such a model. Born from a United Nations Development Program grant in Costa Rica, and later evolving into an applied research program sponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – Activities Implemented Jointly, and approved by the governments of the United States and Costa Rica, RTT has experimented in Costa Rica with various forest designs in order to optimize the carbon sequestration potential of a hectare of forested land. When accounting for prescribed forest thinnings, the new RTT model can achieve the long term sequestration of over 1200 MT of CO2e per hectare. This model outperforms both natural tropical forests, which average between 200-300 MT/ha CO2e storage, and the model being implemented by the Costa Rican government.
The RTT model can transform forestry from a long-term, low-return land-use proposition to a medium-term activity that economically outperforms the value of cattle pasture on a per hectare basis. Accordingly, the model will attract tropical landowners to participate in projects while creating a sensible solution to long-term carbon sequestration.
The land that is best suited for reforestation is held by private landowners in the wet tropics, primarily those with medium to large sized ranches. This is because privately held land is most likely to have been cleared of forest for pastures in the past. The owners of these farms must engage in profitable land-use activities, which has made some attempts to convert productive pasture to forest a difficult sell to the farmer. Indeed, Costa Rica, a country that has entered into a landmark agreement with the World Bank to reforest tens of thousands of hectares of cattle pasture, is reporting a lack of interested farmers.
Carbon sequestration projects based on forestry simply cannot be sustainable over the long-term if the landholder/farmer does not experience the financial benefits of maintaining land as forest. By designing a forest with a mixture of species that are both productive in terms of CO2 capture and storage, and valuable in terms of timber, the RTT model satisfies the competing needs of profitable land-use and the needs of the global commons.
The expected marketization of carbon on a global scale will further enhance the profit potential of reforestation projects.
Starting when a forest is 10 years old, and following every 4 years thereafter, the RTT model calls for a 20% thinning, the income from which accrues to the farmer. Thinnings are necessary to achieve the growth rates to sustain a 40 MT C02e per hectare per year production of the forests. Without thinning, the forest will stagnate and show a decline in its annual incremental growth.
The minimal RTT thinning process also allows the canopy to close quickly and promotes the recuperation of the high productivity levels. After the thinnings, RTT underplants shade tolerant tree species in the forest in order to compensate for the trees that were removed and allow for a perpetual cycle of forest production and carbon capture.
These activities will achieve the desired outcome due to its ability to simultaneously meet the needs of landholders and the environment.
RTT believes that in order to help solve the climate crisis, a workable forestry model must be adopted on a large scale in much of the tropical world. The RTT model represents a major improvement on the standard forest, a monoculture of a single species.
RTT is confident that the wide scale adoption of its forestry model, when combined with global emission reduction programs, can limit the atmospheric concentration of CO2 below the 450 parts per million threshold cited as critical by the International Panel on Climate Change.
Over the past 16 years, RTT has planted 138 hectares of applied research forests, which are measured and analyzed annually. Through experimentation, RTT has refined its forestry model to a point where it can be introduced on a wider scale.