Deforestation and carbon emissions go hand in hand. Forests act as carbon sinks, meaning they draw down carbon dioxide from the air2. So, due to the clearing or burning of forests around the world, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is going up. Not only is the release of stored carbon into the air from the forest occurring, but also less forest cover exists to remove carbon dioxide from the air. In other words, more tree removal means more greenhouse gas emissions. This is how forest degradation causes global warming and, in turn, speeds up climate change. Tree planting is a way to reverse this and boost carbon stocks in the ground once more.
Why does deforestation increase carbon emissions?
Trees store large amounts of carbon in their branches, trunks, roots and leaves. During forest clearance or burning, carbon is released and it combines with oxygen3. This reaction creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which speeds up global warming4. Estimates suggest deforestation releases 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year5. Tropical deforestation contributes a lot to this figure, as most tree removal occurs in tropical areas such as Brazil.
The release of carbon from trees is not the only way deforestation raises carbon dioxide levels in the air. As more forests are cleared or burned, this also means there are simply less trees available to balance greenhouse gas emissions from other things. As a result, there are less trees able to help slow the pace of climate change. Human activities such as forest fires, as well as the burning of fossil fuels, release tons of carbon into the air every year. More actions such as these mean the amount of carbon in the air continues to go up.
Is there an answer to this?
Yes. For the reasons described above, many believe tree planting is a strong solution to reducing the amount of carbon in the air. Trees control the water cycle and reduce soil erosion. Both of these qualities increase the potential for carbon storage. This makes clear the importance of trees to balancing carbon emissions. But it is for sure not the only neither the best solution. Beside all the positive effects of tree planting, people still have to keep in mind that planting the wrong trees in the wrong places could have damaging unintended consequences. It risks destroying habitants and wildlife, reducing natural flood barriers and water quality. Furthermore, it could be the case that planting trees in a wrong way could release more carbon into the atmosphere than it should supposed to remove.
1Zombie Carbon Emissions Haunt the Planet, Bloomberg, 28 July 2016
2Deforestation and Climate Change, Climate Council, 21 August 2019
3Causes of Climate Change, Climate Science Investigations, 11 August 2016
4Carbon Dioxide, NASA
5Deforestation and Climate Change, Climate and Weather. https://www.climateandweather.net/global-warming/deforestation.html.