By Angelina Davydova
ST PETERSBURG, Russia, Jan 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - R ussia's forests may lose their power to help curb global warming without stronger domestic protection and a place in a new global climate change deal, scientists have warned.
Russia has 19 percent of world forest reserves by surface area. But experts say the U.N. process drafting the climate change pact, due to be agreed at the end of 2015, has concentrated mainly on tropical forests.
"Boreal forests are getting far too little attention in the U.N. climate talks," said Yury Safonov, a senior climate policy researcher with Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
Boreal forests are located in the high northern latitudes of Eurasia and North America, and consist of hardy trees, many of them coniferous, such as pine and larch, and some deciduous, including poplar and birch.
Each year, boreal forests sequester more than 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas. Russian forests account for between 300 and 600 million tonnes of that, Safonov said.
But a study by the Center on the Problems of Ecology and Productivity of Forests at the Russian Academy of Sciences has warned that, due to unsustainable forest policy in Russia and negative climate impacts, net CO2 absorption by the country's forests may drop to zero towards the mid-2040s.
The scientists said most of Russia's managed forest reserves will become too mature to keep on sucking up CO2. Recent studies have questioned, however, whether aging trees do cease to function as carbon sinks.
Another major problem is pests, which are multiplying and living longer because they are no longer being killed off by freezing winters.
Traditional "Siberian" winters where temperatures remain below minus 20 degrees Celsius have become rare. They are being replaced by milder winters, with regular thaws and wider temperature fluctuations.
NATIONAL FOREST GOAL?
Alexey Kokorin of green group WWF Russia urged the government to adopt a more sustainable forest policy that limits logging and aims to expand tree cover.
"We think Russia should follow the way of China, and not only declare a target for emissions reductions, but also set a national forest goal," he said.
That could be expressed in terms of tonnes of CO2 stored, or in millions of hectares of protected forests where commercial felling is prohibited, Kokorin added.
So far, Russia has yet to clarify whether forests are included in its emissions reduction targets for 2020 - a cut of 25 percent from 1990 - and for 2030 - a decrease of 25 to 30 percent from the same base year.
Russia has tried to bring the issue of boreal forests into the U.N. negotiations. But some say the effort is not enough.
"In the future (climate) agreement, a proper consideration of all forests, including boreal ones, should be provided," Russia's chief negotiator Oleg Shamanov told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
At December's climate talks in Lima, Alexander Bedritsky, special envoy for the Russian president, underlined the importance of recording and accounting for the carbon storage function of boreal forests, as part of a wider treatment of land use change and forestry in the new agreement.
Experts say the Bikin River forest conservation project in Russia's Far East and an afforestation project in Siberia's Altai region, carried out under the Kyoto Protocol, the existing global treaty to cut emissions, could be used to push for inclusion of boreal forests in the new deal.
Since the New York Declaration on Forests was launched at the Ban Ki-moon climate summit in September, aiming to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020 and end it by 2030, Russian green groups have urged Moscow to sign on.
But in Lima, Russian forest negotiator Anna Romanovskaya said that was unlikely. Russia was not consulted on the declaration, and was unhappy with its exclusive focus on tropical forests, she said.
FUNDING DRIES UP
Safonov noted that few other countries with boreal forests take an active stance on them at U.N. negotiations, including the United States, Finland and Sweden. "Russia doesn't get any support from anyone in this area," he said.
Urgent measures were needed to protect the Arctic and northern Siberia from climate change as it is happening there "more quickly than anywhere else in the world," he added.
For example, forest belts could be planted to prevent soil erosion and forestry waste used as biofuel, he proposed.
WWF's Kokorin suggested earmarking virgin forests as "no-cutting" zones, and prohibiting commercial logging in protected forests.
But without external support, Russia might struggle to fund sustainable forest management during an economic downturn and international fallout over its military intervention in Ukraine, said Andrey Stetsenko, an environmental economist with Moscow State University.
For example, Safonov and other experts said projects approved by the Global Environment Facility had been put on hold due to foreign policy issues, including sanctions over Ukraine.
Meanwhile Russia's federal budget for 2015 has slashed spending on energy efficiency to zero due to economic woes.
"The question is how Russia and its regions are aiming to fulfill their emissions reduction targets and low-carbon and energy efficiency development plans in such a situation," Safonov said. (Reporting by Angelina Davydova; editing by Megan Rowling)