Forests under threat from climate change: study

OSLO (Reuters) - Forests are extremely vulnerable to climate change that is set to bring more wildfires and floods and quick action is needed to aid millions of poor people who depend on forests, a study said on Thursday.

Visitors take a walking tour at a mangrove forest on the Indonesian resort island of Bali December 6, 2007. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmed Tawil

The report, by the Jakarta-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), urged delegates at a U.N. climate meeting in Poznan, Poland, from December 1-12 to work out new ways to safeguard forests in developing nations.

It said climate change could have impacts ranging from a drying out of cloud forests in mountainous regions of Central America -- making wildfires more frequent -- to swamping mangroves in Asia as seas rise.

“Unless immediate action is taken, climate change could have a devastating effect on the world’s forests and the nearly 1 billion people who depend on them for their livelihoods,” a statement said. Measures include better fire prevention, selecting tree species in plantations suited to a changing climate, keeping out new insect pests and preserving forest corridors to help animals and plants to migrate when some forest areas were cleared.

People who rely on forests would need aid to adapt to changing conditions. Forests are a source of food, building materials, and medicines for millions of people.

“The imperative to assist forests and forest communities to adapt to climate change has been poorly addressed in national policies and international negotiations,” said CIFOR director general Frances Seymour.

Possible mechanisms to be discussed in Poland include paying poor people to preserve tropical forests to slow climate change -- trees soak up greenhouse gases as they grow.

Burning of forests, mainly to clear land for farming, releases an estimated 20 percent of the greenhouse gases from human activities blamed for stoking global warming.

Peatland forests in Asia are among those vulnerable to drying out. “The ecosystem is getting more and more vulnerable ... with the possibility of releasing more carbon,” Daniel Murdiyarso, one of co-authors, told Reuters.

“In many forests, relatively minor changes in climate can have devastating consequences, increasing their vulnerability to drought, insect attack and fire,” said CIFOR forest ecologist Markku Kanninen, a co-author of the report.

“Burning or dying forests emit large quantities of greenhouse gases, so there is a chance that an initially small change in climate could lead to much bigger changes,” he said in a statement.

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Editing by Alison Williams