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 Planning Forests for Climate Conservation

Forests remove carbon dioxide from the air and bind it in wood, a valuable, eco-friendly raw material.
Hence, reforestation combined with optimal forest management could be a partial, and economically sound approach in the struggle of slowing down global warming. The ‘Mefyque’ project (FP5, Quality of Life) aims to develop an integrated model for forecasting the quality of timber. The new tool should help forest managers establish forest management goals alongside
planting and logging schemes.
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World forests

Forests are not only our “green lungs”, as the popular saying goes, but they also play a key role in the climate of our planet. In the year 2000, 38.6 million km2 of the terrestrial surface was covered by forests(1). Although Europe(2) holds only a small share of this (1 039 million km2), it has a considerable part of the managed forests. World-wide, forests are shrinking due to heavy logging and habitat destruction – with the exception of Europe. More than 90 000 km2 (2.3%) of forest cover was lost annually during the years 1990-2000, whereas Europe actually increased its wooded area by 8 630 km2.
The reforestation policy in European countries is based mainly on economic considerations, although the climatic role of forests is increasingly being taken into account, too. The guideline for any forestry policy should be sustainability: replacing each piece of logged land with re-plantation of equivalent ecological value.

The climatic impact of forests

Over the years, the conjecture that human activities are contributing to the global increase of
temperatures has been supported by more and more evidence. Although we have to take into account the effects of a warming phase, starting in the 18th century, it is undeniable that the most recent years have shown unusually mild winters and increasing rainfall across most of the Northern hemisphere, consistent with model forecasts for human-induced global warming.
Presumably, the decisive factor is the massive release of carbon dioxide (CO2) from various sources, such as volcanic activities, combustion(3) and organic decay. It is of great importance, therefore, to study the various kinds of carbon sinks, such as the oceans and organic CO2 fixation. One major
contributor to carbon fixation is the tree, because of its size and relative abundance. A hectare of immature, albeit slow-growing forest can absorb more than 100 tonnes of carbon each year. The annual rate of carbon fixation in trees has been estimated as 100 million tonnes for Europe; in addition, every year 30-50 million tonnes are stored in the form of processed wood. This has to be compared to the annual carbon emission rate of 900 million tonnes in Europe.
It is therefore of ecological interest to increase the global forest coverage by reforestation. Interestingly enough, it is not natural woods but managed forests which yield the most wood biomass – depending on the region, modern forestry can grow from three to ten times the volume of wood per hectare as that of an unmanaged forest. Hence, managed reforestation could be a partial solution to the problem of slowing down global warming. Indeed, it has to be done in a sustainable way, and by using the wood as far as possible within the economy.

Wood, the environmentally friendly material

One of the oldest materials used by man is growing in trees: wood. About 3.5 billion cubic metres of wood are harvested annually in the world, worth $140 billion(4). Although half of this is being consumed as fuel, there is still plenty of wood used for construction purposes, paper processing or as raw material for industrial production.
Considering that wood production and processing uses only 1-4% of the energy it is storing, it is
certainly the most ecological raw material. Of every cubic metre of wood produced, 30-40% is used to build products conceived to last more than 25 years, and about 30% for products of a shorter life-span(5). Thus, the carbon-sink effect of wood is considerably prolonged. Furthermore, wood-made products are fully recyclable.

An integrated European approach

Given the importance of the forestry sector, considering both ecological and economic impacts, an integrated approach to improved management is essential. Forest managers have to know in time about the needs of the timber industry, which relies on a regular supply of wood with uniform properties. A model for forecasting the quality of timber would be very helpful in decision-making about planting and logging schemes.
A European group – Mefyque – has received funding under the Fifth Framework Programme (QLK5-2000-00345) to develop an integrated modelling framework. The aim is to improve understanding of
the relationships between site conditions and growth, timber quality and production, current and future scenarios of climate change and atmospheric compositions.

The group intends to:

  • Monitor existing forest sites;
  • Manipulate conditions of growth;
  • Analyse anatomical, biochemical and mechanical properties of wood;
  • Model growth, yield and quality at a range of spatial scales.

The integrated modelling system will enable forest managers, the timber industry and policy-makers to decide whether forest management should be principally for production, conservation or amenity outputs.

(1) All figures from ‘Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000’, FAO, 2001.
(2) Including the European part of Russia.
(3) 12 215 million tonnes of carbon dioxide for all OECD countries in 1998.
(4) The International Timber Trade, Tim Peck, Woodhead Publ., 2001.
(5) Prof. Arnold Frühwald, University of Hamburg, in: Agra-Europe, 18/12/2000, p.L14/15.


Samuel Piercy Evans
Forest Research, an Executive Agency of the Forestry Commission Farnham, UK
Tel: +44 1420 526207

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