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[Herald Interview] ‘Keeping forests young is key to net-zero emissions’

Korea Forest Service minister highlights the importance of trees for the environment and people

Korea Forest Service Minister Choi Byeong-am (KFS)
Korea Forest Service Minister Choi Byeong-am (KFS)

With the Earth’s rapidly changing climate and its consequences being felt around the world, calls are growing for nations to take immediate action to tackle the issue.

To play its part in the global fight against climate change, South Korea is implementing measures to become a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases.

Among them is a plan to plant 3 billion trees by 2050, and the key is to keep the country’s forests young, Choi Byeong-am, the minister of the Korea Forest Service told The Korea Herald.

Choi, who was previously the deputy minister of the agency, was named the 33rd minister to lead the KFS in March.

In the interview, Choi spoke about how the government is working to bring forward the date of Korea’s Arbor Day, which currently falls on April 5, to reflect the warming weather. He also touched on the progress being made on the 15th World Forestry Congress, which is to be hosted by South Korea in May next year.

The congress is the world’s largest forestry conference, held every six years under the auspices of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

The event was initially planned to take place in May this year, but has been pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Korea Herald: About 60 to 70 percent of South Korea is covered in forest, and this highlights the importance of Korea Forest Service in the country. What is the role of KFS?

Choi Byeong-am: South Korea has 63 percent of its land covered in forests, putting the country at the top fourth place among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in terms of forest size. I remember being taught that Korea was poor because there are too many mountains, making the land useless, but this is wrong. A lot of countries with forests are wealthy.

To make sure people reap the benefits from forestry, we are working to make our forests more valuable and also look after people’s safety regarding forest fires. Also, KFS works to foster the forestry industry and provide forestry-related welfare services to the people. In addition, the agency is the main public entity working to promote public values to preserve the forest ecosystem.

KH: It has been about two months since you were appointed as the KFS minister. What is your plan for the KFS?

Choi: Since I was appointed, I have spent busy and yet meaningful months in April and May, where KFS’ major events took place, such as the Arbor Day ceremony and an event on forest fires.

On the 76th anniversary of the Korean Arbor Day on April 5, I planted trees with President (Moon Jae-in) and the first lady, and ministers of government bodies -- the Agriculture Ministry, Industry Ministry and the Environment Ministry -- working together on the cause of achieving net-zero emissions. Also we promoted the importance of planting trees with other corporate and civic organizations. I believe it was an event where KFS played its part in realizing the government’s push for net-zero emissions, raising awareness on the importance and the meaning of forestry to encourage people’s action.

Feb. 25 to May 15 was set as a special campaign period for prevention of forest fires for the spring season. By reinforcing our forest fire prevention policy, we were able to see the number of forest fires reduce by 39 percent during the period, and the damaged areas by 75 percent. I would like to thank all officials who made efforts to create such tangible results.

I will make efforts on these five objectives to make sure the major government projects promoted by President Moon Jae-in go smoothly.

KH: The importance of planting trees is highlighted for a net-zero society. How much of an influence does a tree have?

Choi: Trees absorb as much carbon dioxide as they grow in a year. A pine tree absorbs about 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide as it grows for 50 years. So just 1 hectare of 30-year-old pine trees can absorb 11 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, which equals to the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by about eight passenger cars.

KH: The country is committed to going carbon neutral by 2050. How is KFS planning to meet that goal?

Choi: KFS has set its goals for the net-zero emission mission based on scientific data, and analyzed the appropriate volumes of cutting and planting trees.

In the long-term, we seek to contribute to the goal by planting 3 billion trees in the next 30 years to reduce about 34 million tons of carbon emissions, annually. This goal involves replacing old trees with young ones, so that forests stay young to retain, and increase their carbon-absorbing capability.

KH: How do you plan to plant the 3 billion trees in the next 30 years?

Choi: We will be planting 2.7 billion trees in South Korea and 300 million trees in North Korea. This year, we are planting about 48 million trees across a total area of 20,000 hectares. We will be increasing the annual volume so that the number of trees we plant reaches to about 100 million trees in a year.

As for the areas where we need to preserve natural habitats for biodiversity, biodiversity will be put as priority. Forests age, and if we just leave them, the carbon absorption capacity will go down to a third of what it is now, to about 15 million tons in 2050. To do so, we will increase the annual volume of timber harvests and tree plantings in commercial forests in the coming years.

KH: Korea’s Arbor Day currently falls on April 5, but the government plans to move it to March. Why is that?

Choi: Due to climate change, the weather in March is warmer. So there have been discussions that Arbor Day should be brought forward. Even from the latest weather observation, the average temperature in March has gone up by about 2.3 degrees Celsius in 2010s, from that of the 1940s.

It has been a long time since Arbor Day was designated on April 5, so we will make sure to gain enough public consensus in carrying out the plan.

In our recent survey, 56 percent of about 1,600 respondents said they agree to changing the date of Arbor Day. While it is still at the reviewing stage, shifting Arbor Day to an earlier date will raise the alarm on climate change and global warming.

KH: The 15th World Forestry Congress, which was to be hosted by South Korea, has been pushed back a year to May 2022 due to COVID-19. How does KFS plan to host the event?

Choi: The World Forestry Congress that was slated to be held in May this year has been pushed to next year, due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Fortunately, we expect the COVID-19 situation to improve with the distribution of the vaccine, globally. We announced changing the date to May 2-6 in 2022.

Together with United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, we have kicked off registration for participants and visitors, and are conducting various marketing efforts to promote the congress.

KH: The Asian Forest Cooperation Organization has been established under the lead of South Korea. What is the role of AFoCO?

Choi: AFoCO is an international organization that was created following South Korea’s suggestion at the Korea-ASEAN summit in 2009. In April 2018, the entity was officially launched as an international organization after the establishment agreement came into effect.

AFoCO is currently working on various business projects, with Asian countries cooperating for forestry, especially on the field of reforestation, and implementing geographic information system and satellite technology to advance the forest management system.

With this, I expect KFS will be able to share South Korea’s success cases of reforestation to other countries via AFoCO and take lead in the international discussions on forestry.

By Jo He-rim & Lee Kwon-hyoung (herim@heraldcorp.com) (kwonhl@heraldcorp.com)
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