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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Deforestation has double the effect on global warming than previously thought

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In the fight against climate change, much of the focus rests on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and developing alternative energy sources. However, the results of a new study suggest that far more attention should be paid to deforestation and how the land is used subsequently – the effects of which make a bigger contribution to climate change than previously thought.

The research, conducted by Cornell University and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters,shows just how much this impact has been underestimated. Even if all fossil fuel emissions are eradicated, if current rates of deforestation in the tropics continue through to 2100 then there will still be a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperature….

Natalie M Mahowald et al. Are the impacts of land use on warming underestimated in climate policy? Environmental Research Letters. August 2017. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa836d

Abstract: While carbon dioxide emissions from energy use must be the primary target of climate change mitigation efforts, land use and land cover change (LULCC) also represent an important source of climate forcing. In this study we compute time series of global surface temperature change separately for LULCC and non-LULCC sources (primarily fossil fuel burning), and show that because of the extra warming associated with the co-emission of methane and nitrous oxide with LULCC carbon dioxide emissions, and a co-emission of cooling aerosols with non-LULCC emissions of carbon dioxide, the linear relationship between cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and temperature has a two-fold higher slope for LULCC than for non-LULCC activities. Moreover, projections used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the rate of tropical land conversion in the future are relatively low compared to contemporary observations, suggesting that the future projections of land conversion used in the IPCC may underestimate potential impacts of LULCC. By including a “business as usual” future LULCC scenario for tropical deforestation, we find that even if all non-LULCC emissions are switched off in 2015, it is likely that 1.5°C of warming relative to the preindustrial era will occur by 2100. Thus, policies to reduce LULCC emissions must remain a high priority if we are to achieve the low to medium temperature change targets proposed as a part of the Paris Agreement. Future studies using integrated assessment models and other climate simulations should include more realistic deforestation rates and the integration of policy that would reduce LULCC emissions.

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