Kyoto’s Global Warming Controls Could Harm Forests

To help reduce global warming, the Kyoto Protocol encourages countries to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by planting more trees. But the Protocol fails to consider conservation — countries can meet their commitment by replacing mature forests with rapidly-growing plantations.

“Replacement of old forests with plantations is a perverse incentive of the Kyoto Protocol,” says Reed Noss of Conservation Science, Inc. in Corvallis, Oregon, in the June issue of Conservation Biology. “The protocol could easily do more harm than good unless accompanied by strong incentives to protect biodiversity.”

While the U.S. commitment is now in doubt under the Bush administration, the government had planned to meet half its annual commitment through land-based carbon sinks. Noss urges countries to conserve old-growth forests and to put any tree plantations on marginal agricultural lands.

Noss also considered how to protect forests during climate change. The good news is that forests have already survived many periods of dramatic warming and cooling, in part by shifting, contracting, and expanding their ranges. The bad news is that it will be harder for trees and other species in today’s fragmented and degraded forests to shift their ranges in response to climate change.

To help forests adapt to climate change, Noss recommends two main approaches. First, we should maintain or restore connections between forests. This includes maintaining elevational corridors so species can move up or down mountains as necessary as well as corridors along the Mississippi Valley and other major north-south river valleys that allowed dispersal during past climate changes.

Second, we should protect climate refugia, which are areas that harbored species during past climate changes. Probable climate refugia include the southern Appalachians, the Klamath-Siskiyou region of California and Oregon, Iberia, Italy, the Balkans, and rock outcrops, cool slopes, and many other small areas.

—Robin Meadows

Further Information:
Noss, R. 2001. Beyond Kyoto: Forest management in a time of rapid climate change. Conservation Biology 15(3):578-590.

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