Aging forests could hamper Japan’s decarbonization efforts

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TOKYO – Planted forests are aging noticeably across Japan, with more than half now 50 years or more, making the country more vulnerable to typhoons and other natural disasters and also compromising its decarbonization efforts.

In 2019, Chiba Prefecture was hit by widespread power outages in the wake of Typhoon Faxai, which toppled trees in neglected forests, knocking down electric wires and utility poles. If thinning is neglected, trees in a forest cannot get enough sunlight to grow strong, and there is not enough undergrowth whose roots hold the soil together.

Many planted forests were created after World War II to rehabilitate the national territory. They have often become poorly maintained in recent years, leaving some in poor condition.

Hit by cheap timber imports, the forest industry in Japan suffers from weakened competitiveness and unable to properly thin and replant trees. “There are too many forests to maintain even though we thin out every year,” said an official from Sammu municipal government in Chiba prefecture.

Under these conditions, reforestation is impossible. In fiscal 2017, forests where post-harvest replanting had not been implemented as planned totaled some 11,400 hectares, a 30% increase from three years earlier, according to the Agency. Japanese forest. Forests 50 years and older totaled more than 5 million hectares.

The detrimental effects of old forests are not limited to disaster prevention. The agency estimates that carbon dioxide uptake by forests in Japan reached a recent high of 52 million tonnes in fiscal 2014 and fell about 20% to 43 million tonnes over the course of Fiscal year 2019. Carbon dioxide uptake is considered to peak when tree growth stabilizes after age 40.

In April, the government announced a target to reduce Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions by 46% by fiscal year 2030 from 2013 levels. The target includes a reduction of around 38 million euros. tonnes per year – 5% of the amount pledged – thanks to the absorption of carbon dioxide by forests. But if forests continue to age at the current rate, they will be unable to absorb enough carbon dioxide, hampering Japan’s decarbonization drive.

Forests are not internationally recognized as carbon sinks unless they are properly thinned to meet standards such as capturing enough sunlight to grow well. The standards are the result of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement on climate change concluded under the leadership of Japan. Some experts point out that around 20% of planted forests in Japan, totaling 10 million hectares, are no longer counted as carbon sinks.

Discussions about reducing the gases that cause global warming often focus on issues such as renewables. But the forestry industry cannot be overlooked. China, for its part, is engaged in the massive planting of forests for this purpose.

Rehabilitating the forest industry is by no means an easy task. As thinning and planting are projects that take decades, the grim question of whether the industry can survive hampers discussions of its social utility, such as contributing to disaster prevention and decarbonization.

The price of cutting cedar logs in Japan – the price paid for the trees after deducting harvesting, transportation, and other costs – was 2,900 yen ($ 25.83) per cubic meter in 2020, a bit over 10% of the peak price of over 20,000 yen circa 1980, according to the Japan Real Estate Institute. Although timber prices are skyrocketing in the downstream market, the price of upstream stumpage remains low. “The forestry industry will continue to decline because there is no way to make a profit,” a large forestry company said.

Timber produced in Japan accounted for less than half of total domestic demand for lumber in 2020. While timber exporters such as the United States and Canada have a lot of flat land, mountainous Japan is at a disadvantage due to difficulty in creating roads and transporting wood from its forests.

The government should adopt “a policy of promoting the use of wood to pass benefits to the forest industry up the marketing chain,” said Mitsuo Matsumoto, professor at Kindai University. There are many issues to be addressed, such as increasing the use of machinery to improve productivity and address complex land tenure issues. In addition, the collection of both public and private knowledge and the use of funds for disaster prevention and other purposes is necessary.


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