Climate change mitigation

Owing to their capacity to sequester atmospheric CO2, there has recently been much interest in using plantations in climate change mitigation strategies. In Chapter 3, five strategies for the contribution of the forestry sector have been identified: (1) increasing the forest area through afforestation; (2) increasing the carbon stored in existing forests; (3) protecting existing carbon stocks from release into the atmosphere; (4) increasing the carbon stored in products (yielding also indirect greenhouse gas mitigation through material substitution); and (5) substituting fossil fuels with bioenergy derived from forest biomass and wood (see above).

The greatest realistic potential for plantations appears to be in the first and in the fifth options. However, carbon sequestration in the forest-based sector is largely a non-permanent strategy. The sequestration phase is finite. In plantations it may last only for some decades and then the gained carbon stocks would need to be protected to keep carbon withdrawn from the atmosphere. While this is not possible within a single plantation stand, it may well possible over larger temporal and spatial scales, if plantations are maintained and not converted back into agricultural land use. Sequestration therefore always needs to be protected by safeguarding measures to make mitigation strategies effective.

Extending the length of rotations in existing forests is currently unlikely to receive the financial reward required to compensate for not harvesting trees at their economical maturity. Increasing the proportion of wood supply from fast-growing and sustainably managed plantations to permit a reduction of harvesting and the setting aside of native forests for conservation purposes, as we have discussed above in the context of biodiversity values, may also be a substantial contribution of plantations to the protection of carbon stocks in these forests, which may be old-growth forests with high C density. Increasing the use of long-lasting wood products and improving recycling rates has the potential to reduce the pressure on forest resources; however, this is a broader issue that is not exclusive to plantation products.

Plantations, however, may not only play a role in mitigation strategies to climate change. They may also be strongly affected by climate change with ramifications for the goods and services provided by them. Adapting plantations to climate change is another challenge. Compared to native or semi-natural forest with slow-growing, long-lived trees, this task may be much easier in fast-growing plantations, where changes of species, provenances or clones to adapt to climate-induced changes in site conditions can be accommodated frequently between rotations. However, the introduction of new species may also require the adaptation of silvicultural practices and the processing chain, which may be rather difficult and costly.

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