Climate Recovery and Adaptation potential of Forests in the Tropics

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of Earth and Environment


Tropical forests are globally critical centres of biodiversity and carbon storage. These forests face serious threat from deforestation - nearly 97% of permanent forest loss in the past decade has occurred in the tropics (FAO, 2020). Innovative solutions to reduce tropical deforestation are urgently required. International climate treaties recognise forests as an essential resource for mitigating global climate change through carbon capture and storage, but their role in helping humans adapt to rising global temperatures has not yet been assessed. Quantifying the potential contribution of intact and recovering tropical forests to climate change adaptation would shift the paradigm of forest conservation incentives away from promoting global-level mitigation benefits towards demonstrating the value of forests at local and national scales, thereby influencing the actions of those with power over the fate of tropical forests. Strengthening linkages between mitigation and adaptation would also offer new national incentives to achieve global climate targets.

Replacing tropical forests with alternative land types disrupts regular water and energy exchanges between the land and the atmosphere, causing higher surface temperatures and changes to the water cycle. These changes exacerbate climate change-driven warming and droughts with severe consequences for human health and crop productivity. The presence of forest could alleviate the damaging effects of global climate change by cooling surrounding non-forest landscapes, reducing the frequency of heatwaves and sustaining inland water supplies. However, the potential for tropical forests to offer such ecosystem-based adaptation, and the dependence of climate services on forest type and degradation status, have not been evaluated. This evaluation is limited by the capability of climate models to capture the complexities of forest-climate interactions, and therefore their ability to reliably predict how tropical deforestation or afforestation may modify future temperature increases.

I will lead a team of researchers to deliver the first in-depth assessment of the local and regional climate benefits provided by intact and regenerating tropical forests. My analysis will combine, for the first time, the latest satellite and ground-based measurements, air-mass trajectory modelling and state-of-the-art numerical models to accurately quantify how tropical forests interact with climate at varying spatial scales. Advances in understanding will inform the development of the UK Earth System Model to derive improved predictions of how alternative tropical land-use pathways will influence future climate at regional and global scales. My trans-disciplinary and far-reaching Fellowship will extend beyond detailed physical climate science to consider how ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change has co-benefits for human health, agricultural resilience, sustainable resource management and environmental justice. Results will lead to a step-change in how forests are valued, focus motivations for their preservation on local and national benefits and identify synergies between mitigation and adaptation policies. The proposed research agenda builds on my growing expertise in tropical forests, land-atmosphere interactions, and climate change, to transform routes to forest conservation and adaptation.


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