Forests have long been identified as one of the most important net carbon sinks that our planet possesses, as they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, sequestering it in the biomass of trees and as soil carbon. As climate change is now an undisputed reality, the role that forests can play in mitigating the impacts of climate change are becoming ever more crucial. As an island nation blessed with small but significant tracts of tropical rainforest, Sri Lanka is an ideal location to study how land use changes and forest deforestation and degradation impact a forest’s capacity to act as a carbon sink. By conserving and managing the forests that remain, and reforesting areas which have been degraded, Sri Lanka can also add its own lion’s share to the global battle against climate change.
If you were living in Sri Lanka in the 1700s, when it was known as Dutch Ceylon, you would find natural forests to be especially abundant. At this time, over 80% of land cover was forested area. However, by 1999, this had dwindled to a mere 29.2% of total land cover (MFE 1995; FAO 2005). With British colonization came the plantation economy, and this, together with the population boom and development drives of the later century, ensured that forest cover in Sri Lanka was reduced to less than half of what it used to be.
According to a survey carried out by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) in 2005, forest cover comprised of 1,933,000 ha of land area. Now this may constitute just 0.0005% of the Earth’s forest cover, but it has very important implications for Sri Lanka. Among the many ecosystem services provided by these forests, climate control at a local level, flood retention and groundwater recharge are just a fraction of the indispensable services provided by these forests.
Where climate change is concerned, it is imperative that we protect these forests, as deforestation and degradation could convert the rainforests of Sri Lanka into sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs), making the hero of the story a villain.
Recent research shows that this reversal of roles may not be as uncommon as we think. As recently as September 2017, Baccini et al published an article in the journal Science which stunned the global community. It enumerated that tropical rainforests have now become net carbon sources, based on aboveground measurements of carbon gain and loss. This alarming phenomenon is largely due to the clearing of lands for anthropological land uses and continued forest degradation. If these practices were halted, emissions would be reduced by at least 862 Tg C yr-1. It is evident that we cannot take for granted that tropical rainforests will always remain as sinks, regardless of the harm we to do them.
One of the foremost initiatives taken by the GoSL in order to accelerate Sri Lanka’s commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement (which is a global call to action to keep global warming from increasing by more than 20), was to endorse the implementation of the National REDD+ Strategy. The REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) now plays an important role in international climate negotiations.
By reducing emissions through decreases in the conversion of forests to alternate land uses, developing countries stand to gain financial rewards through REDD. It is a way of incentivizing large-scale emissions reductions. In 2016, at COP-16, REDD was expanded to REDD+, in order to encompass more components aimed at holistic goals such as poverty alleviation and sustainable management, in addition to emissions reduction. It addresses the concerns laid out by the late Indian Prime Minister Indhira Gandhi at the very first global conference on the human environment in Stockholm (1972), where she said that conservation must also work towards improving the lives of the world’s poor in developing countries.
From 2013 to 2017, the National REDD+ Strategy was developed, and Sri Lanka now has an action plan, a national forest reference level, a transparent forest monitoring system and a system of safeguards (checks and balances) in place in order to implement the Strategy in the near future. A significant mobilization of resources took place in order to complete the REDD-readiness phase, and it’s a sign that Sri Lanka is not planning on backing out of its climate change mitigation commitments to the UNFCCC. In fact, this small tropical island nation is ready to prove its mettle as an exemplary model for other countries.
FAO (2005) Global Forest Resources Assessment, Country Reports: Sri Lanka. FRA 2005/123 Rome, 2005
Baccini, A., Walker, W., Carvahlo, L., Farina, M., Sulla-Menashe, D., & Houghton, R. (2015). Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on new measurements of gain and loss. In Review, 5962(September), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1252826
National REDD+ Investment Framework and Action Plan, 2017 Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme