Gideon Behar, David Brand

Can’t see the forest for the…climate change

August 14, 2019

The importance of forests in the global fight against greenhouse gas emissions was highlighted at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24), held in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

The high-level delegates at the conference published a call for global support and conservation of forests, after decades of ongoing destruction of the world’s forests. According to the 2015 status report, Global Forest Resources Assessment ( FRA 2015 ), deforestation is continuing on a large scale –  slightly less than in the past, but still about 33,000 square kilometers (3.3 million ha; over 8 million acres) per year.

Forests provide a wide variety of ecosystem services essential for the benefit and continued existence of human beings on the planet. Forests are the central vehicle for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas responsible for most of the climate changes in the world today. Forests replenish our oxygen, purify the air, and underpin eco-systems that encompass countless animals and plants. They supply us with food, wood, and medicines. The UN estimates that more than 1.5 billion people are dependent on forests for their livelihood. In addition, they give us places in which to walk and refresh our spirits. Without forests, it is doubtful that we could survive.

In addition to the direct man-made destruction of forests through clearing, large forested areas are being affected today by a decrease in precipitation, increasingly frequent droughts, a rise in tree pests and diseases, extreme climate events, and a significant increase in forest fires.

In light of the above, forest conservation and afforestation have top priority in man’s confrontation with the problem (that he created) of climate change. Many experts concur that, in order to achieve a balance between emission and absorption of greenhouse gases, we must develop proactive strategies to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Photo by Steven Kamenar on Unsplash

How is carbon dioxide absorbed?

Even states that are firmly committed to slowing climate change, and have announced their intention to reach zero gas emissions by the year 2050, realize that, in order to achieve their goals, they will need some technologies for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

However, these technologies have not been tested on a large scale and are not ready for use. . This was one of the conclusions reached in the UN-IPCC special report released in October 2018: “ Global Warming of 1.50.”

The uncertainty and potential dangers are too great, leading to the conclusion that we still must rely on natural ways to keep carbon dioxide at acceptable levels. This means preventing the destruction of existing forests as well as reforesting depleted areas and planting new forests.

The United Nations strategic plan for forests 2017-2030 aims to do exactly that. The central goal of the plan, adopted at the UNGA in April 2017, is to increase forested areas globally by 3% by 2030 while conducting scientific research and expanding our knowledge about forests and afforestation. Although the plan is voluntary, and each country can decide for itself how much it wants to increase its forested areas (the plan does not include any sanctions), its importance lies in the fact that, for the first time, it sets a global goal for forestation.

The percentage of planted forests is rising – today, about 7% of the forested area in the world is planted forests, up from 4% in 1995. Many states, among them China, Pakistan, and India have been planting trees and forests on a huge scale in recent years. Pakistan, for instance, planted a billion trees in 2014 as part of its goal of 10 billion trees. Ethiopia planted 353 million trees in one day this year.

Photo by Sergei Akulich on Unsplash

Israel is one of the few countries in the world that had an appreciably greater forested area at the beginning of the 21st century than it had at the beginning of the previous century. This is due to purposeful and determined effort. Correspondingly, Israel, in the last hundred years, has developed expertise in dryland forestry.

Israel’s extensive knowledge and rich experience are recognized worldwide. As an example, Kenya’s Minister for the Environment and Forestry recently approached the forestry department of KKL-JNF) Jewish National Fund – a nongovernmental organization in Israel which functions as the Forest Service of Israel) for help in acquiring the knowledge necessary to reach its goal (following a government decision) of increasing forest cover in Kenya from 7% to 10%. Israel’s experience in dryland forestry can be applied to many places in the world, contributing to the strengthening of world forests.

Israel’s expertise is most relevant to semi-arid regions or areas on the edge of the desert, such as the Sahel that stretches from east to west across Africa; large parts of Australia; parts of China suffering from desertification, and others. These areas have a high potential for afforestation – for one thing, large sections of them were once forests and can be rehabilitated relatively easily. Furthermore, their value for agriculture or grazing has decreased, making them available for other uses. Afforestation of these areas will provide a much-needed livelihood in tree farming and wood products as well as increased precipitation levels.

Yatir Forest, planted by KKL– the Jewish National Fund, starting in the 1960s, is the focus of a long-term study conducted by a research team headed by Professor Dan Yakir of the Weizmann Institute of Science. In an article published in January 2018, Prof. Yakir and his colleagues explain the potential benefits of planting forests such as Yatir Forest, Israel’s largest forest (about 5,000 ha), which is located on the edge of the Negev desert and has an annual precipitation of about 270 mm.

Large-scale afforestation in semi-arid regions such as the Sahel and northern Australia will bring an increase in precipitation levels and have an impact on broad areas even beyond the forests. The researchers estimate that the carbon sequestration potential of such large-scale semi-arid afforestation could be about 10% of the global carbon sink of the earth’s continental surface. The trees planted must be native varieties suited to the climate and conditions (Sahel, Australia), not invasive or non-native species such as pines and cypress, which are suited to more northern regions.

Israel can make a great contribution to scientific research, both theoretical and applied, related to forests and afforestation in general, and arid and semi-arid forestry in particular. It is notable that one-third of the world’s population live in arid or semi-arid regions and 20% of the earth’s continental surface is semi-arid.

Israel is proud to be part of the international forest policy agenda, contributing to the global effort to reduce the damages of climate change.

Gideon Behar is Head of Bureau for Africa at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former ambassador to Senegal. He lectures at the IDC Herzliya on the subject of climate change and its implications for international relations.

Dr. David Brand until recently was Chief Forester and Director of Forest Division at KKL-JNF. Today he provides consultation and supervision services in the area of dryland forestry and agriculture. 

*ZAVIT – Israel’s Science and Environment News Agency