March 6, 2023
KATHMANDU – Forests play an important role when it comes to climate change. Depending on different factors, they can be either sources or sinks of greenhouse gases (GHGs)—the reasons for global climate change. They release carbon into the atmosphere, stored in their biomass if poorly managed. If properly managed, they capture the atmospheric carbon and store it in their biomass, thereby helping to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide, one of the main GHGs responsible for climate change. In addition to that, forests provide a wide range of goods like food, timber, fibre, fuelwood, and natural medicines. They also provide multiple services: (a) regulating services, such as air quality improvement and temperature regulation; (b) supporting services, such as nutrient recycling and soil formation; and (c) cultural services, such as spiritual and recreational values.
The benefit of forests is two-fold. They help in climate change mitigation by sequestering atmospheric carbon and also in climate change adaptation by producing and freely providing many goods and services. Therefore, planting many trees is said to be one of the main actions to abate climate change.
In Nepal, the role of forests in the adaptation of human society to climate change (forests for adaptation) and their contribution to the mitigation of climate change are widely and frequently discussed, but discussions about how and if forests will adapt to climate change (adaptation of forests) is practically non-existent. Our adaptation plans and actions are mostly people-centred; there are no discourses about the adaptation of forests. Research has provided enough evidence that the frequency and intensity of forest disturbances, such as pest and insect outbreaks and forest fires, will increase because of climate change.
Forest management interventions like only planting a lot of trees or keeping large areas of land as forests are insufficient. Such interventions should also change with time to make forests more resilient and adaptive to climate change. Forests must first survive and thrive to provide the goods and services they produce to help humans adapt to climate change. The overstocked and old forests other than inside the protected areas should be harvested. New regeneration that will grow in a changing climate and develop the adaptive capacity at early age should be promoted.
Unless the discourses on the adaptation of forests become prevalent in society, there is always a high risk of the collapse of ecological balance because the impacts of climate change on forests, one of the components of the ecological system, is usually forgotten. Needless to say, each component of the ecosystem faces the impacts of climate change, and each of them needs to adapt. What’s trickier is that no component other than humans can predict or even understand their predictions of future climate, and only humans decide and try to act for all. A missing discourse on the adaptation of forests to climate change means we are not thinking and discussing enough about how to manage our forests so that they can adapt to the predicted changes in future climate.
The national adaptation programme of action (NAPA) and local adaptation plans of action (LAPA) broadly mention building climate adaptive ecosystems, of which forest is also a component. But the main focus of these plans is still on human adaptation. Local people are encouraged to set adaptation priorities when preparing such plans, and it is obvious that with limited resources in poverty-stricken communities, people keep livelihood as their first priority (as it is in the NAPA). They think of a forest as a source of goods and services, but hardly think about the impacts it might face. This shows that only a few policy discourses exist, if at all, but the public discourses don’t. For the plans and policies to be successful, public discourses and participation play a great role in policymaking and implementation. However, if such discourses are induced in policy documents only through the participation of experts during their preparation, rather than through public awareness, those discourses are unlikely to be put into action by the public.
Surprisingly, this discourse is very rare in academia too. Courses on forest management are mostly centred around the annual harvest of timber and multiple ecosystem services that forests produce and provide, but the impacts of climate change on forests, which need to be considered while making forest management plans, are not included. Forests need to adapt to climate change as people need to. They are, most of the time, only understood and taught as resources that help people to cope with the impacts of climate change.
In international climate change negotiation forums such as the conference of parties (COP), we proudly speak about the large proportion of forest area we have been managing, their importance in mitigation and their role in the adaptation of climate-vulnerable societies. The role of forests in mitigation and adaptation are highlighted each time, but we never bring the topics of adaptation of forests into such forums. It is common for people’s vulnerability to get space there, but the absence of any discussion about forest adaptation indicates that the discourse is either missing or that we do not prioritise it. So, discourses on adaptation of forests should get as much importance as those on forests for adaptation. Rather than only highlighting the importance of forests in climate change mitigation and adaptation, we should think, discuss and act more on how to grow and manage forests that will cope with predicted changes in the future climate. That way, we will have both forests and societies that will be resilient and adaptive to climate change.