Forests re-grown on lands that had been cleared for agriculture in Latin America could play a key role in trapping carbon from the atmosphere and mitigating climate change if they are managed properly, researchers said in a study published on Friday.
Over the next 40 years, such second-growth forests have the potential to sequester greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to all fossil fuel and industrial emissions from Latin America in the past two decades, said the study by scientists at the University of Connecticut.
While preventing deforestation is the best protection against releasing climate-changing gases, the study published in the journal Science Advances shows that re-grown forests have a bigger impact in combating global warming than previously thought.
"Avoiding deforestation and supporting forest regeneration are complementary and mutually reinforcing activities," said Robin Chazdon, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut and lead author of the study.
For re-growing forests to live up to their potential in sucking carbon out of the atmosphere in the tropics, governments across Latin America need to work with local communities to ensure the land is protected, Chazdon said.
"There is a huge link between land rights and (forest regeneration)," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If people don't own the land, they don't have incentives in its future... There is also a huge potential for community management of some of these restored forests."
It takes between 40 and 60 years for forests to re-grow much of their carbon storage potential following deforestation, the study said.
This process works efficiently if local people are involved in managing the transition and protecting the re-growth, Chazdon said.
In many cases, especially when small plots of land are cleared for agriculture or livestock, tropical forests can regenerate themselves, without the need to physically replant trees, she said.
Brazil's re-growing forests hold the bulk of Latin America's carbon storage potential - 71 percent - followed by Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico.
The potential of second-growth forests to sequester carbon could provide a solution for countries in Latin America to meet both their climate change and forest management goals, the study said.