Natural forests, not plantations are the need of the hour to meet global climate targets, says a new study by UCL and University of Edinburgh scientists.

Several countries across the world have pledged to restore their forests to combat global warming; however, these plans may fall short of meeting 1.5C climate targets since these countries are creating plantations of commercial trees instead of actually restoring natural forests – a move which is likely to reduce the expected carbon uptake.

According to the research, plantations are not as effective when it comes to storing carbon compared to natural forests. Plantations are a poor choice for storing carbon because the trees are harvested periodically for various uses, releasing all the stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Meeting the 1.5C target requires rapid emissions cuts and removing carbon from the atmosphere. Restoration of natural forests is the most effective approach to capture sufficient carbon and achieve these global climate goals.

Forty-three countries in tropical and sub-tropical regions made forest restoration commitments, many as part of the Bonn Challenge that aims to restore 350 million hectares of forest by 2030. The study shows that natural forests can hold 40 times more carbon than plantations and six times more than agroforestry; therefore, restoration of forests over 350 million hectares of land can remove 42 billion tonnes of carbon by 2100. However, when current commitments for plantations (45 percent), natural forests (34 percent) and agroforestry (21 percent) are applied to the whole area, only 16 billion tonnes of carbon can be removed by 2100.

Natural forest restoration needs to be supported by emissions reductions through other measures including lowering dependence on fossil fuels and stopping deforestation.

The scientists have also proposed four ways to increase the effectiveness of current forest restoration programmes including increasing the proportion of land being regenerated to natural forest; prioritising restoration in Amazonia, Borneo and the Congo Basin, which provide a conducive environment; building on existing carbon stocks by targeting degraded forests for natural regeneration; and protecting the restored natural forests.

Image credit: 18-year-old naturally regenerating forest in Kibale National Park, Uganda. (S. Lewis)