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photo of large tree in forest.

Unveiling a New Era of Climate-Smart Forestry: Michigan State University’s Research Redefines the Field

photo of large tree in forest.
(Credit: Unsplash.)

Researchers from the Forestry Department at Michigan State University, Lauren Cooper and David MacFarlane, have recently published an article in PLOS Climate, presenting their research on “Climate-Smart Forestry” (CSF).

The study aims to provide an expanded and shared understanding of this term, which has gained prominence in discussions concerning forests’ role in addressing global climate impacts. Cooper and MacFarlane recognize the need for a clear and comprehensive definition of CSF that can guide policymakers, natural resource managers, and project leaders. Their research incorporates a literature review, qualitative assessment, and statistical analysis to assess current definitions, identify gaps and potential risks, propose a new definition, and explore sources of evidence for CSF.

The Importance of Forests in Climate Change Mitigation

Forests have increasingly become a focal point for international investments aimed at combating deforestation and degradation trends, as well as reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. The emergence of regulatory and voluntary markets utilizing forest-based carbon credits further highlights the significance of forests.

However, discussions surrounding the utilization versus conservation of forests, carbon commodification, and potential greenwashing issues have created tensions within the field. The term “Climate-Smart Forestry” and its related variations have been used colloquially, assuming a shared understanding, without proper scientific scrutiny, leading to a “science-practice gap.”

The Current Understanding of Climate-Smart Forestry

The current understanding of CSF revolves around three primary objectives: increasing carbon storage, promoting human health and community resilience, and sustainable use of wood resources. Cooper and MacFarlane propose an enhanced definition of CSF that adds two additional goals: the protection of natural places and the restoration of degraded landscapes.

They also highlight the emerging emphasis on forest carbon sequestration rates, which overlooks the long-term resilience of forests and other treed landscapes. The authors propose additional CSF indicators, such as tree longevity and biomass residency time, to address these limitations and provide a more comprehensive assessment of different forest types.

Addressing Gaps and Risks

Cooper and MacFarlane identify several gaps and risks associated with the current framing of CSF. These include overly simplified relationships between carbon sequestration and forest management, excessive focus on above-ground tree volume as forest carbon stocks, the “carbonization” of forest values, unintended social effects and unequal benefit distribution, misinterpretation of climate effects, and overlooking efficiency gains and economic misalignments. Their research aims to address these gaps and risks by proposing an expanded conceptualization of CSF that considers a wider range of forested landscapes and incorporates socio-cultural values, co-benefits, safeguards, and landscape-level considerations.

The Importance of Indigenous and Rural Rights

The authors recognize that the current understanding of CSF primarily benefits industry, investors, and governments, often neglecting the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous and rural communities. These communities, representing 1.5 billion people and occupying a significant portion of global land and forests, depend on forests for sustenance and livelihoods.

Cooper and MacFarlane emphasize the importance of incorporating indigenous and rural rights in conservation and climate mitigation efforts, as these communities possess valuable knowledge and can contribute to reducing the risks associated with CSF oversight.


The research conducted by Cooper and MacFarlane offers an enhanced definition of Climate-Smart Forestry and addresses the gaps and risks associated with the current understanding of CSF. Their work highlights the need to consider a diversity of land management and conservation practices beyond carbon, emphasizing the importance of resilient landscapes that cater to various social and economic needs. By broadening the scope of CSF and incorporating traditional ecological knowledge, policymakers, natural resource managers, and project leaders can make informed decisions to promote sustainable and climate-smart forestry practices.

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