Environmental Research Letters 15(3): 034011.
Tree plantations and forest restoration are leading strategies for enhancing terrestrial carbon (C) sequestration and mitigating climate change. While it is well established that species-rich natural forests offer superior C sequestering benefits relative to short-rotation commercial monoculture plantations, differences in rates of C capture and storage between longer-lived plantations (commercial or non-commercial) and natural forests remain unclear. Using a natural experiment in the Western Ghats of India, where late-20th century conservation laws prohibited timber extraction from monodominant plantations and natural forests within nature reserves, we assessed forests and plantations for aboveground C storage and the magnitude and temporal stability of rates of photosynthetic C capture (gross primary production). Specifically, we tested the hypothesis that species-rich forests show greater temporal stability of C capture, and are more resistant to drought, than monodominant plantations. Carbon stocks in monodominant teak (Tectona grandis) and Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) plantations were 30%–50% lower than in natural evergreen forests, but differed little from moist-deciduous forests. Plantations had 4%–9% higher average C capture rates (estimated using the Enhanced Vegetation Index–EVI) than natural forests during wet seasons, but up to 29% lower C capture during dry seasons across the 2000–18 period. In both seasons, the rate of C capture by plantations was less stable across years, and decreased more during drought years (i.e. lower resistance to drought), compared to forests. Thus, even as certain monodominant plantations could match natural forests for C capture and storage potential, plantations are unlikely to match the stability–and hence reliability–of C capture exhibited by forests, particularly in the face of increasing droughts and other climatic perturbations. Promoting natural forest regeneration and/or multi-species native tree plantations instead of plantation monocultures could therefore benefit climate change mitigation efforts, while offering valuable co-benefits for biodiversity conservation and other ecosystem services.