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[MANILA] The expansion of forests in many countries is attributable to national well-being rather than the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) as some climate change models show, says a new study. Carbon dioxide serves as food for plants and trees, which theoretically can help forests expand.
 
Published in PLOS ONE this month (May), the study says that during 1990­—2015, forest stock grew annually by 1.31 per cent in high-income countries and by 0.5 per cent in higher middle income countries. By contrast, forest stock fell by an annual average 0.29 per cent in 27 lower-middle income countries and by 0.72 per cent in 22 low-income countries. 

“The model for developing countries is that economic development, agricultural efficiencies, and overall improvement in human well-being will decrease pressures for deforestation and ultimately allow for landscape restoration”

Douglas Muchoney, FAO

Transitions from net forest loss to net gain, which first occurred in the 1800s in Western Europe, were not attributable to the rapid rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide that began decades later. Over the past 200 years, such transitions have aligned with a switch from subsistence to market-oriented agriculture. Today, the growth or decline of a nation’s forest resources correlates strongly to the UNDP’s Human Development Index.
 
During 1990­—­2015, roughly 13 tropical countries, including Laos, Philippines and Vietnam, appear to have either transitioned or continued along the path of forest expansion that follows such transitions, according to data from the FAO.
 
“If the aim is to strengthen the contribution of forests to climate change mitigation, (then) development is needed,” Pekka Kauppi, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Helsinki and co-author of the study, tells SciDev.Net. “Good education, good infrastructure, reliable electricity grid, communication opportunities, reliable law enforcement etc., can provide co-benefits through forests in climate policy (that is, sparing forests and making better use of forest-derived products and services).”
 
The study attributes forest expansion to several factors that have outweighed the impacts of population growth and improving diets, such as urbanisation and the availability of alternatives to wood as a fuel. But, unfortunately, deforestation continues in biologically rich forests while the new expanding forests are biologically less diverse, especially where they consist of planted monocultures. Douglas Muchoney, Senior Environment Officer at the FAO, tells SciDev.Net that it is not surprising that development leads to reduced pressure on forest resources.
 
“So, the model for developing countries is that economic development, agricultural efficiencies, and overall improvement in human well-being will decrease pressures for deforestation and ultimately allow for landscape restoration,” Muchoney says. “As forests are carbon sinks, reforestation, afforestation and better forest management will improve the national, regional and global carbon balance.”
 
 This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.