Trees and the Earths Life Support System

The Global Carbon Cycle
The Global Carbon Cycle is a vital part of the Earths system. Green plants use the suns energy and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere to produce food (carbohydrates), which is essential for life. This is known as photosynthesis. In the process the oxygen we breathe is released. As life decays nutrients are recycled, carbon is stored in pools as litter, wood or fossil wood and CO2 goes back into the atmosphere.

To summarise:

Carbon is stored by the oceans, vegetation, soils, land use (e.g. afforestation)
Carbon is released as CO2 by the oceans, fossil fuel burning, respiration, decay, land use (e.g. deforestation)

Global Warming
The earths carbon pools store is 39,000 giga tonnes and for nearly half a million years the transfers of carbon from these pools to the atmosphere has remained stable. Since the industrial revolution in the mid 1700s, however the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been increasing. - by over 30%. Levels of other Greenhouse gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide have also been going up. The increased C02 is trapping heat and causing the earths temperature to rise. This will have many unpleasant side effects for us humans and could in fact wipe us out.

The role of Trees and Forests
Forests make up over three quarters of the carbon in vegetation and 40% of that in soils. As long as forests are maintained and replenished they continue to store carbon. This can amount to 70 tons of carbon or 250 tons of CO2 equivalent per hectare in the wood and foliage, a lot more in the soils. The tropical rain forests of the Amazon, central Africa And East Asia that covers 6% of the earths surface are really important carbon sinks. The cutting down and bad management of forests will reduce carbon storage and increase CO2 emissions. Well-managed regenerating forests and creating new forests will reduce emissions and increase carbon storage.

Unfortunately the history of tropical rain forests has been one of exploitation and destruction especially since the 1900s.An area the size of Ireland is still being destroyed each year and half that area again seriously degraded, releasing billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. As well as this the result is a great loss of biodiversity.

Although efforts are being made to slow down deforestation and conserve tropical forests and forests in temperate regions are reasonably well managed and increased by new planting, this is not enough to off set the damage to the rain forests. A huge international effort will be needed to halt the damage.

Irelands Forests and carbon
In Ireland, although we have only 10% of our land under trees (700,000 hectares) this still represents an important carbon store, the equivalent of nearly 1200,0000,000 tons of CO2 in forest biomass, litter and soils. Annual forest growth stores some 5 million tons and planting of new forests about 2million tons CO2 per year. The harvested wood from our forests stores about 10 m tons CO2 per year. Most of our other energy using and creating activities release CO2.

Since 1992 (the Rio conference on the environment) and 1996 (the Kyoto protocol on climate change) the international focus has been on sustainable energy use. Forests are seen as vital to sustainability and good forest management and afforestation have been encouraged in offsetting carbon storage against greenhouse gas emissions. Our programme to increase the national forest estate is seen to be positive. Each year a report is prepared for the UN to show trends in the forest estate through replanting, new planting and areas which are taken out of forestry. So far our forest carbon pool is continuing to increase which is good for CO2 storage.

The use of wood can also save energy and reduce emissions - as fuel wood in various forms to replace fossil fuels, as building structural material being more efficient than concrete and as fittings to replace plastics. Wood is renewable and if replaced by new trees will always be carbon neutral.

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