New views on old forests: tackling climate change by protecting rainforests

Academic: Dr D. Spracklen, Faculty of Environment

Evidence that clearing forests to grow crops for biofuels leads to large carbon emissions, has resulted in international action to improve forest management and mitigate climate change.

Due to concerns about the environmental impact of fossil fuels, the production of biofuels has increased Biofuels are often seen as environmentally-friendly because when burned, they only release the carbon dioxide that was absorbed by the biofuel crop. However, biofuels increase demand for agricultural land, meaning forests are often cleared to make way for biofuel crops.

Evaluating the influence of forests on climate

A Leeds co-authored study highlighted that clearing forests to grow crops for biofuels leads to large carbon emissions. The study demonstrated for the first time that if forests are cleared to make way for biofuels, more carbon is released than the emissions avoided through replacing fossil fuels with biofuels.The study demonstrated that the carbon captured by protecting and restoring forests is considerably greater than the carbon emissions avoided through the use of biofuels.

Leeds researchers also found that forests have far bigger impacts on climate than previously thought. Organic chemical species released by the trees form tiny atmospheric particles that scatter sunlight back to space, helping to cool the climate. In another study, Leeds research showed that tropical forests substantially increase the amount of rainfall downwind. This was the first study to demonstrate this positive effect of forests at the global scale.

The world’s forests influence climate through processes that affect the planet’s energy balance, atmospheric composition and hydrological cycle.  Research carried out at Leeds has informed the development of sustainable biofuel policy that ensures forests are not cleared to make way for biofuel crops.

Sustainable biofuel policy

Researchers from Leeds informed the UK Government Environmental Audit Committee. Findings from the research have influenced United Nations policy debates. In light of the evidence, in 2011 the UK Government added mandatory sustainability criteria to its biofuel policy.  These new regulations will  ensure that UK biofuel use does not result in the clearance of natural forests worldwide.

Enabling business to tackle climate change through forest protection

Leeds co-established the charity United Bank of Carbon (UBoC) to support climate change mitigation through protection of the world’s forests. The charity works with UK businesses to facilitate action that protects forests, mitigates climate change whilst leading to tangible business benefits. UBoC works closely with Leeds researchers lending confidence to private sector investment. In its first two years, UBoC brought about investment of £1.5 million, resulting in improved management of over 200,000 hectares of rainforest and avoided at least 620,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Leeds researchers also worked with the World Land Trust to establish a forest climate mitigation scheme, resulting in forest protection and reforestation activities across Ecuador.

Funder: Natural Environment Research Council