A recent New York Times article focused on a new theory in forest protection and climate change. Perhaps old-growth, intact, indigenous forests don’t need to be saved, because forests in many parts of the world are reclaiming former farmland at a steady pace. Rural residents are leaving the countryside for jobs in cities often leaving behind “empty” land that forests, on their own, are reclaiming. So, goes the theory, maybe we don’t need to be as worked up–as some of us are–about the dramatic loss of the world’s intact forests to food production, industrial development, housing, cattle, and timber and mineral extraction. Or about the fact that 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from the clearing of forests. These new forests, too, the theory goes, will capture carbon, keeping it from further warming the global atmosphere.
It’s an attention-getting argument to be sure. Bold, new, shiny. Easy, too: don’t worry so much, it suggests. The forests will come back, so the mounting losses aren’t such a big deal. But is it valid? Should it influence forest and climate policy? Or efforts to protect biodiversity and habitat for non-human species? I was skeptical, as I tend to be of new, shiny theories–sometimes a good thing, sometimes definitely not. Then, another study appears, this time in Nature. And this one says: save the old-growth forests! Intact rainforests sequester nearly 20 percent of the world’s carbon emissions…that’s nearly 5 billion tons of it a year. “New” forests just can’t do this. In my carbon calculus, old news trumps new theory. Not so shiny, but not so subtle, either. Forests need to be a priority in any climate solution. Now, and even as farmland gives way to trees and shrubs.