When forests regrow: ERC Starting Grant for sustainability researcher Simone Gingrich

In many industrialised countries, forests are starting to regrow after centuries or millennia of large-scale deforestation. This appears positive for the global climate system, because forests sequester carbon that would otherwise accumulate in the atmosphere. However, forest regrowth may not necessarily be a viable strategy for climate-change mitigation. Simone Gingrich has been awarded a prestigious ERC Starting Grant and plans to use it to identify and analyse the “hidden emissions” of reforestation processes.

The European Research Council promotes pioneering fundamental research and offers outstanding young researchers the opportunity to establish an independent team of researchers by bestowing prizes such as the ERC Starting Grant. Simone Gingrich has been awarded with an ERC Starting Grant for her project entitled “Hidden Emissions of Forest Transitions: GHG effects of socio-metabolic processes reducing pressures on forests” (HEFT) which will commence in 2018.

The extensive clearing of wooded areas represents a major sustainability problem, primarily due to the associated carbon emissions which contribute to global climate change. In recent years, many countries, among them numerous industrialised nations, have significantly increased their efforts in afforestation as a climate protection measure. As a consequence, less forest areas are lost globally and more carbon is bound in global ecosystems.

“Different theories attempt to explain why we are currently witnessing greater forest regrowth: On the one hand, measures to protect forests are seen as a response to timber scarcity, and on the other hand, the steady reduction of small-scale agriculture leads to rural exodus, leaving land free to be reclaimed by forest”, explains Simone Gingrich of the Institute of Social Ecology. Therein lies the main focus of her research: While studies conducted to date have predominantly concentrated on individual political or economic driving forces, she aims to identify the systemic links between forest change and changes in resource use pertaining to industrialisation. According to Gingrich, “until now, there has been no stringent biophysical perspective allowing us to embed the shrinking and the expansion of the forest within the wider context of socio-economic resource use. For the first time ever, we will be able to quantify the extent to which emissions arising from processes of agricultural intensification or from the substitution of wood as fuel by fossil fuel surpass the carbon sinks in forests”. These hitherto “hidden” emissions can only be fully comprehended and quantified by applying a holistic view to ecosystems and societal resource use. Gingrich goes on to explain: “During the period of industrialisation, the use of fossil and other modern energy sources reduced the pressure on land to provide energy. This allowed forests to grow.” However, this does not solve any sustainability problems.

Over the next five years, Simone Gingrich and her colleagues at the Institute of Social Ecology will develop a methodological framework designed to quantify these effects. Furthermore, she will conduct case studies in Europe, North America, Southeast Asia and on a global level. The results will contribute to exploring potential opportunities for future greenhouse gas efficient changes to forest and land use, “which cannot be identified without giving due consideration to hidden emissions. This will provide important contributions to effective climate-change mitigation.” To date, Simone Gingrich has financed her scientific career through third party funded projects. She is the mother of twins who are about to enter primary school. She regards the ERC Starting Grant as “an important recognition of my work so far, performed at the intersection of sustainability science and environmental history. What is more, it gives me the opportunity to focus closely on the topic of my choice, collaborating with colleagues over a period of five years – an unusually long timespan in the sphere of project-funded basic research.”


Simone Gingrich | Foto: Pilo Pichler

Simone Gingrich | Foto: Pilo Pichler