How does deforestation affect the carbon cycle?

The carbon is an essential element for all forms of life on Earth. The carbon input and output are necessary components of all plant and animal life, whether these life forms absorb carbon to help make food or release it as part of respiration. Maintaining the stability of the carbon cycle is therefore crucial for the well-being of living species. Yet human activities such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests upset the balance of the cycle, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change. How does deforestation affect the carbon cycle and what are the solutions that could reduce the impact of this phenomenon?

What is the carbon cycle?

The carbon cycle describes the process by which carbon atoms continually travel from the atmosphere to different organisms on Earth and then back into the atmosphere again and again. These atoms meet several large tanks throughout the cycle, including the atmosphere, oceans, lithosphere, terrestrial biosphere, aquatic biosphere, as well as fossil fuels. Since the Earth is a closed system, the total amount of carbon found here remains unchanged. However, the amount of carbon in a specific pool can change over time as the carbon moves from one pool to another.

Maintain a carbon footprint between different reservoirs – which requires that the amount of carbon naturally released from reservoirs be equal to the amount they absorb – is imperative. Yet, due to human interventions – primarily deforestation – the carbon cycle is facing a loss of balance, with more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as forests are cleared.

Figure 1: The carbon cycle

What is deforestation?

Deforestation is the conversion of forest areas to non-forest land such as arable land, urban use, exploited area or wasteland. Although its rate has decreased considerably, deforestation remains a pressing problem that cannot be ignored. From direct causes of deforestation is agricultural expansion, with the conversion of forests to cropland and pasture in order to grow crops and raise livestock, the expansion of infrastructure resulting from urbanization as well as logging – both illegal and legal.

Since 1990, humans have cleared around 420 million hectares of forests in the world. Tropical tropical forests such as the Amazon rainforest in South America, the Congo rainforest in Africa, as well as the tropical islands in Southeast Asia, are among the most affected by deforestation. Around 17% from the Amazon has been lost over the past 50 years, mainly due to the conversion of forests for cattle ranching. In 2019, 1.17 million acres of primary forest disappeared in Congo, second only to Brazil’s total deforestation that year. This continuous and continuous clearing of forests has a major impact on the environment and the carbon cycle.

How does deforestation affect the carbon cycle

Figure 2: Annual deforestation, 2015

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How does deforestation affect the carbon cycle?

Carbon moves from the atmosphere to biomass reservoirs through photosynthesis: In this process, plants absorb carbon dioxide and sunlight to create fuel for the development of their structures, including tree trunks, roots, branches and leaves.

Along with the oceans, forests are important carbon sinks, capable of retaining 861 gigatons of carbon. The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, is a natural carbon sink and provides one of the planet’s greatest services: absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Its ability to do so is crucial in our fight against the climate crisis. In trees and carbon-rich solids, the forest stores the equivalent of four to five years of human-caused carbon emissions, up to 200 gigatons of carbon. Yet, due to persistent deforestation and a sharp increase in forest fires, the Amazon has been transformed into a carbon source, and now emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Wildfires produce three times more carbon than forests can absorb, creating a negative loop. As Yavinder Malhi – a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford – explains: “If our sink disappears” – affirms Malhi – “you lose the service that the biosphere provides.”

This is just one example of how human interventions have interfered with the balance and stability of the carbon cycle. Through a technique called slash-and-burn cultivation – an agricultural method that involves cutting and burning plants in a forest or woodland – the carbon stored in the trees is released and returns to the atmosphere. Soil, free of trees and vegetation, will also become a significant source of accumulated carbon emissions, especially when the soil is rich in partially decomposed organic matter known as peat. Without forest cover, the previously flooded peat soil is left exposed and gradually weakens. oxidize and decompose. During these processes, huge amounts of carbon stored in the soil are released into the atmosphere.

Depends on deforestation method, the release of carbon from the biosphere to the atmosphere can take place at different rates. For example, clearance by combustion causes an immediate release of carbon. However, the twigs, branches or stumps and many other components of forest biomass that remain after harvesting will decompose over time, releasing the stored carbon to the atmosphere in a much slower process that takes years or even decades.

Solution to deforestation

Afforestation and reforestation are common ways to restore forests. The first is the conversion of long-standing unforested land to forest, while reforestation refers to the replanting of trees on more recently deforested land. Since most carbon emissions from deforestation occur immediately, afforestation and reforestation may not be sufficient to remove carbon from the atmosphere due to their slow process and should only be adopted as that long term solution. In the meantime, other short-term solutions are needed.

To begin with, local governments should provide financial incentives and actively work with forest communities encourage the sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products such as rubber, cork, agricultural products or medicinal plants to replace wood. Low-impact agricultural activities such as shade farming – an agricultural practice that leaves many trees from the original rainforest to provide shade for shade-loving crops – can also be promoted to communities to further discourage deforestation.

Unfortunately, most conservation and protected areas around the world are not well funded and therefore more prone to deforestation. To address this problem, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) launched the Project Funding for Sustainability (PFP)a program that creates funds to support the good management of protected areas around the world as well as to promote the creation of new ones.

In addition to local solutions, international organizations such as the United Nations play a huge role. An excellent example of an effective campaign to reduce deforestation is REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a collaborative program initiated by the UN in 2005. REDD provides incentives to change the ways forest resources are used. The program funds environmentally responsible forest management, limits forest mismanagement and introduces carbon trading as an economic incentive.

REDD+ – extension of the REDD program – was introduced in 2013 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This climate change mitigation solution places greater emphasis on the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries by developing and implementing plans national action plans and public policies. Once a country’s action plan has been verified, REDD+ can provide financial support to implement strategies to combat forest degradation and reduce deforestation.

As of January 2020, a total of 50 developing countries had submitted a REDD+ Forest Reference Level or Forest Reference Emission Level for technical assessment to the UNFCCC, covering more than 70% of the total forest area of ​​developing countries. Through periodic assessments, the UNFCCC can track conservation progress made by countries, providing additional support and assistance as needed.

EO position: The problem of deforestation will continue to be an ongoing challenge that deserves our attention. Besides its effect on the carbon cycle, the harmful impacts of this phenomenon on the Earth’s biodiversity, the water cycle, the soil and public health must also be taken into account. In addition to the actions of local governments and international organizations, we could all participate in the protection of the forest by buying certified products produced or harvested in a sustainable way. With substantial help from different parties, the negative impact of deforestation could certainly be mitigated, if not eliminated, in the near future.

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