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Forests are contributing to global warming, new study says

October 4, 2017

Thomas Lovejoy

The world’s tropical forests absorb hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. But a new study published in the journal Science suggests the Earth’s forests are actually releasing more carbon than they absorb, adding another element to the problem of climate change.

George Mason University professor Thomas Lovejoy, a noted conservation biologist and an expert in the application of ecological science to conservation, called the development “alarming.”

“It takes away a sense of comfort by revealing the tropical forest emissions to be greater than we realized,” he said. “It says that we really have to manage our forests in a much better way and really manage the planet like the linked biological and physical system that it is.”

What is causing the world’s forests to emit more carbon than they take in? The study cites the effects of deforestation through wildfires, drought and logging.

All will cause trees to release the carbon they have stored through their normal processes. The study found that forests are emitting 425 million tons of carbon each year. That is the result of total carbon losses of 861 million tons and gains of 436 million tons as forests continue to grow.

That indicates that increasing forest growth could mitigate the carbon losses and turn forests into a climate change solution, the study says.

“If we change our overall approach to forests so we’re allowing them to recover as well as reforest, we can actually pull some of the CO2 out of the atmosphere before it accumulates radiant heat,” Lovejoy said.

Of the study, he said, “It has given us a much more accurate sense of the role that forests are playing in a negative way, and a glimpse of how forests could play a really positive role if we manage them better.”

Thomas Lovejoy, who coined the term “biological diversity,” founded the public television series “Nature,” and has studied the interaction between climate change and biodiversity for more than 30 years, can be reached at 703-993-5179 or tlovejoy@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gmu.edu.

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George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.