Smart reforestation must go beyond carbon: expert

Reforestation simply for carbon storage risks creating a barren, fragile monoculture.

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BOGOR, Indonesia – Keeping carbon stored in trees. That’s one major way of tackling climate change.

Natural regeneration, replanting, native tree plantations, commercial plantations and agro forestry systems have all be used as part of reforestation efforts.

But a new study has found we can do better by ensuring that communities and ecosystems surrounding and within the forests are also more resilient to climate change.

And it’s all in the planning.


The study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) warns reforestation that ignores the adaptation benefits of replanted forests, using a variety of different practices and tree species, could make local communities and ecosystems more vulnerable to the future impacts of climate change, thereby undermining their effectiveness.

“We cannot assume that a reforestation project for climate change mitigation will automatically benefit people and biodiversity,” says Bruno Locatelli, a CIFOR-CIRAD scientist and lead author of the study.

Locatelli points to monoculture plantations, which often are established to improve timber production and carbon storage.

Reforestation needs to be managed with both adaptation and mitigation objectives in mind to avoid the implementation of one strategy to the detriment of the other

Bruno Locatelli

Previous CIFOR research has shown that they can also deplete water resources, reduce land availability, restrict the livelihoods of local communities, and have negative impacts on biodiversity.

Monoculture plantations are also at risk from climate-related impacts, such as insect pest outbreaks, invasive species and forest fires, which may result in the carbon being lost – undermining the mitigation potential.

“If you plan to reforest with the sole purpose of carbon storage for mitigation or timber production, you often end up having negative impacts on biodiversity, water sources and livelihoods because you have overlooked these trade-offs,” Locatelli says.

“Reforestation needs to be managed with both adaptation and mitigation objectives in mind to avoid the implementation of one strategy to the detriment of the other.”  

Absorbing over 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, or about one-third of the carbon dioxide released through the burning of fossil fuels, forests play a crucial role in regulating the world’s climate.

However, deforestation and forest degradation also accounts for between 10 and 15 percent of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes to climate change.

Although tree planting for mitigating climate change is still seen as controversial, in many tropical regions it is viewed as one of the most cost-effective ways of replacing the carbon lost through deforestation.





In 2014, the ‘Declaration on Forests’ was signed by governments, corporations and indigenous groups, at the New York Climate Summit. It committed to restoring 150 million hectares of forest by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.

The Bonn Challenge sets out a global aspiration to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s degraded and deforested lands by 2020.

Enhancing carbon stocks through reforestation has also been included as part of an international mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, known as REDD+.

While these global commitments are a positive step forward, tropical reforestation focused on climate objectives can often overlook the adaptation benefits of replanted forests, as well as the need to make replanted forests more resilient to climate change, says Bruno Locatelli.

When planning reforestation activities, we have to understand how forests can help fight climate change and how they can resist or adapt to climate change

Bruno Locatelli

This is often because mitigation and adaptation strategies in reforestation are usually developed separately in the international climate policy arena. Reforestation and restoration management practices, methods and guidelines  are therefore developed with different objectives in mind.

As such, the opportunities to integrate both adaptation and mitigation into tropical reforestation strategies have yet to be realised.

The study argues that well managed or “climate smart reforestation” could help meet all three objectives: mitigation, adaptation, and ensuring that the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on reforestation are anticipated and reduced.

“By helping practitioners or policymakers analyze reforestation in the context of climate change, it may assist them  better understand the trade-offs, which may influence their decisions when planning reforestation activities,” says Locatelli.

For example, while plantations consisting of trees of different ages and species store the same amount of carbon as monocultures plantations, they are better able to resist strong winds, pests and diseases, but they may be more costly to plant and manage.

In Costa Rica, a reforestation project is testing different mixes of species and silviculture practices to reduce vulnerability to storms and fires while also achieving carbon storage.


Locatelli hopes that climate-smart reforestation will become part of broader adaptation, disaster risk reduction and land management strategies.

However, its implementation is still limited by several knowledge gaps, particularly in understanding which reforestation practices offer the most resilience against climate change.

“When planning reforestation activities, we have to understand how forests can help fight climate change and how they can resist or adapt to climate change,” he says.

“We have a fair amount of knowledge on the contribution of reforestation to mitigation and we have methods and tools for carbon assessment.”

“But when it comes to adaptation, we still need to improve the way we assess the role of reforestation in livelihoods, in watershed management, and in regional/local climate regulation in order to better influence policy decisions.”

For more information about this research, please contact Bruno Locatelli –

CIFOR’s research on tropical forests and carbon is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry 

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