How SA’s coastal forests could help turn the tide on climate change

Erica Smithwick, professor of geography and director of the Centre for Landscape Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University, measures trees to quantify carbon stocks in the Dwesa-Cwebe nature reserve in the Eastern Cape. Image: Supplied

SA’s indigenous coastal forests are a massive carbon sink that could play a key role in teaching the world how to combat global warming.

Geography professor Erica Smithwick, of Pennsylvania State University in the US, analysed the carbon content of forests in the 5,450ha Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape.

Her research, published in the journal Carbon Management, showed that coastal indigenous forests are able to store a considerable amount of carbon.

“As we think of pathways for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, one of the available approaches is to use the natural world as a sponge,” she said.

Dwesa-Cwebe consists of coastal forest, grassland, rivers and a diverse coastline.

In 2011, Smithwick tagged and measured trees in the reserve. She remeasured them five years later, discovering the coastal forest stores a moderate to large amount of carbon.

The forest is also a biodiversity hotspot and thus important for conservation, but the local community depends on the forest for resources such as medicinal plants, fuel wood and timber, as well as their spiritual needs, Smithwick said.

She added that sustainable development had to be balanced with “how the local communities are able to value and work with these characteristics of the forests”.

South Africa is the 14th-largest greenhouse emitter in the world, as it relies on coal to produce 88% of its energy and only 3.4% is produced by sustainable means.

According to Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, the level of carbon in the air globally has reached 415 ppm, the highest it has been in more than 3-million years.

Smithwick said the lessons learnt in her study on the Wild Coast “hopefully can resonate with how we think about these challenges in other parts of the world”.



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