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One of the arguments used by advocates of forest certification systems is that certification prevents deforestation and a range of impacts, including climate impacts, associated with deforestation. A new study, however, argues that active forestry is not a cause either of deforestation or, by extension, climate impacts.

The study by Winrock International used NASA satellites to estimate the loss of forest cover and the impact that loss had on carbon emissions. The headline finding is that carbon emissions due to deforestation is “approximately one third of previously published estimates and represents just 10 percent of the total global anthropogenic carbon emissions over the time period analyzed.” The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

In a discussion with Nancy Harris, one of the authors, I asked what role ongoing, active forestry had in these carbon emissions. In the release announcing the study, the authors argue that reducing forest-related emissions involves promoting “forest livelihoods.” Harris confirmed that active forestry was not a contributor to deforestation, saying the problem was “outright clearing” associated with other activities. Harvests that are re-planted, however, are not a significant contributor to climate impact.

The study calculated the amount of land impacted by examining forestland that had moved from greater than 25 percent forest cover in 2000 to less than 25 percent cover by 2005. Harris noted the analysis may have picked up some timber harvests that had not yet re-grown. She and her co-authors are currently updating their research to cover the period from 2006 to 2010. This new study, which they hope to release in December, will provide further insight into the pace of deforestation and should also give more information about the role active forestry plays in the forests of developing countries.

There may be other reasons to purchase timber certified by a science-based system. This study, however, demonstrates that forest certification systems designed to reduce timber harvests in developing countries are unlikely to have a measurable impact on carbon emissions.

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