Bounded on the west by the remote broadleaf and conifer forests of northern Myanmar and on the east by the wooded floodplains of West Papua in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s forests harbor thousands of diverse plant and animal species. Twenty percent of Earth’s vertebrate and plant species are found in its rainforests, and counting: between 1997 and 2014 alone, 2,216 new species were discovered.
Yet for all its richness in biodiversity, the region sadly ranks among the highest in habitat loss and deforestation.
All is not lost. In a recent study, researchers in Japan and Italy found that Southeast Asia stands to regain 19.2 million hectares of forests by 2050 in previously-deforested areas, abandoned agricultural land and degraded lands.
In this best-case scenario, Indonesia would gain the most forest cover at 7.8 million hectares – a 41 percent share of the region’s total forest cover gain. The other top-gaining countries would be Myanmar, Malaysia and the Philippines.
This is significantly more than the 5.2 million hectares of forests the region is projected to lose under a worst-case scenario. Indonesia would also lose the most, with its forests shrinking by 2.5 million hectares, or 48 percent of the region’s total projected loss. Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam also rank among the countries losing the most forest cover under the scenario.
“The future might not be entirely bleak,” says Ronald C. Estoque, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies and lead author on the study. “Over the last decade, there have been significant indications of favorable landscape changes leading to afforestation and forest regrowth.”
Estoque cites a past study revealing how the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam had transitioned from net deforestation to net reforestation from 1990 to 2010. In Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar, however, forest loss continued during the same period.
“Decision makers are often torn between prioritizing economic development over environmental protection and vice versa,” says Estoque. “Scenario analyses can give them a bird’s eye view of what could happen with the different policy paths.”
Forests are one of the most effective countermeasures for rising carbon emissions. Healthy forests inhale carbon from the atmosphere and store it in trees, shrubs and soil. When forests are cleared or degraded, however, their carbon storage potential is reduced or eliminated. Furthermore, if trees are burned and forest soils are disturbed, they release their stored carbon into the atmosphere.
Southeast Asia has been steadily losing forest cover over the last few decades, mostly due to the conversion of intact forests and protected areas into cash crop plantations, such as for palm oil. Between 1990 and 2015, the region’s forest cover decreased from 268 million hectares to 206.5 million hectares.
As of 2015, Southeast Asia’s forests stored 21,172 teragrams of carbon – equivalent to 21.172 million tons – in above-ground forest carbon stocks. Under the study’s best-case scenario, Southeast Asia would store an additional 1,651 teragrams of carbon by 2050 through reforestation and afforestation. However, the region would lose the potential to store 790 teragrams under the worst-case scenario. Worse, this would come from the deforestation of old-growth forests, mostly found in Indonesia and Malaysia.
To help forest resource managers and national leaders plan for the future of Southeast Asia’s forests, Estoque and his colleagues combined multi-year satellite data with land-use change modeling to forecast a range of plausible futures.
The researchers used a scenario analysis framework called the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), which look at different ways in which the world might evolve in the absence of climate policy and how different levels of climate change mitigation could be achieved.
Under the best-case scenario, which the report calls the “sustainability/taking the green road scenario,” countries sail through a low level of mitigation and adaptation challenges. Leaders enforce policies characterized by “inclusive development and respect for perceived environmental boundaries, as well as high investment in human capital, education and awareness.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the worst-case scenario, or the “regional rivalry/rocky road scenario,” is characterized by fragmentation, weak global institutions, a lack of cooperation in addressing global environmental concerns, and poor investments in education and awareness.
To achieve the best-case scenario, the researchers recommend strong policy support for protecting remaining forests and expanding forest cover, but the latter can bring about a tricky balancing act between planting trees for environmental benefit and planting trees for profit, says Estoque.
“We recognize the importance of tree plantations for economic purposes in most of the countries in the region, but tree plantations for ecological purposes must also be considered,” the researchers wrote in the report. Recent research has criticized plantation forests for being non-restorative due to their lack of biodiversity and the short life-spans of their trees.
He also highlighted the necessity of support from developed countries in protecting Southeast Asian forests. The economies of developing countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines could suffer if they stopped exporting lumber and plantation products like palm oil and peat, and the developed countries buying them instead turned to other countries without such strong forest protection programs.
“Developed nations, in principle, should help developing nations cope with the impact of climate change and, along that line, climate mitigation by way of forest protection,” says Estoque. “At the same time, they should limit their consumption of forest resources.”
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