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The policy and ecology of forest-based climate mitigation: challenges, needs, and opportunities

Abstract

Great hope is being placed in the ability of forest ecosystems to contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets to limit global warming. Many nations plan to rely on forest-based climate mitigation activities to create additional and long-term carbon sequestration. Here, we take a critical look at the state of the policy and ecology surrounding forest-based natural climate solutions (NCS), with a focus on temperate forests of the United States (US). We first provide a high-level overview of carbon accounting, including key concepts used in the monitoring, reporting and verification of forest-based NCS. Second, we provide a high-level overview of forest carbon dynamics, including pools and fluxes, and drivers of their change. We then identify gaps in the current systems of GHG accounting, and between current ambitions and basic forest ecology. Improved use of data in models provides a path forward to better assessment and anticipation of forest-based climate mitigation. We illustrate this with the creation of a climate-sensitive forestry model, using tree-ring time series data. This climate-sensitive forest simulator will improve planning of site-level climate mitigation activities in the US by providing more realistic expectations of the carbon sequestration potential of forests undergoing climate change. Our review highlights the sobering complexity and uncertainty surrounding forest carbon dynamics, along with the need to improve carbon accounting. If we are to expect forests to play the significant emissions reduction role that is currently planned, we should view immediate emissions reductions as critical to preserve the climate mitigation capacity of forest ecosystems.

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Fig. 1
Box 1: Key considerations in forest C accounting across space and time
Fig. 2

Data Availability

Forest inventory data were accessed from the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) database (https://apps.fs.usda.gov/fia/datamart/datamart_sqlite.html). The tree-ring dataset analysed are not publicly available, but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request (DeRose et al. 2017). Climate data were accessed from PRISM Climate Group (Daly et al. 2008) and climate projections were accessed from the online archive of Downscaled CMIP3 and CMIP5 Climate and Hydrology Projections (https://gdo-dcp.ucllnl.org/downscaled_cmip_projections).

Code Availability

All code can be accessed from https://github.com/clgiebink/UT_FVS.

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Acknowledgements

We thank John D. Shaw, R. Justin DeRose and the Utah State University tree-ring lab for contributing processed tree-ring data as well as the USDA Forest Service for inventory data. Further, we thank John D. Shaw and Mark Castle for contributing expertise and advice in forest modeling with the Forest Vegetation Simulator. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and thank the climate modeling groups (listed in Supplemental Table 1) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the U.S. Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Funding

This research was supported [in part] by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and is therefore public domain. The findings and conclusions in this manuscript are those of the authors and should not be construed to represent any official USDA or U.S. Government determination or policy. RF was supported by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (project 4C, Climate-Carbon Interactions in the Coming Century [grant no. 821003]). DJPM acknowledges support from NASA Terrestrial Ecosystems Grant 80NSSC19M0103. RJD was supported by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, Utah State University, and approved as journal paper number 9515. MEKE and KAH were supported by the National Science Foundation under award DEB-1802893.

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Correspondence to Courtney L. Giebink.

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Giebink, C.L., Domke, G.M., Fisher, R.A. et al. The policy and ecology of forest-based climate mitigation: challenges, needs, and opportunities. Plant Soil (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-022-05315-6

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Keywords

  • Forest Management
  • Carbon Accounting
  • Forest Simulation Models
  • Tree Rings
  • Scientific Uncertainty
  • Co-Benefits