International agreements are increasingly looking at conserving forests as a way to mitigate global warming, preserve biodiversity and safeguard human communities from environmental disasters.
An assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found many forest-related Aichi Targets of the Convention of Biological Diversity will not achieve their goals at their current rates of progress.
Over the past few years, more forest-conservation goals have been adopted by UN member countries. But a UNEP official says this duplication of efforts may actually be derailing forest conservation.
He recommends a more streamlined approach focused on the Aichi Targets and Sustainable Development Goals.
Forests cover about 40 million square kilometers – around 30 percent – of the Earth’s surface. They provide habitat for countless species, as well as important ecosystem services for human communities. Tree roots prevent land degradation and desertification by stabilizing soils, and help maintain water and nutrient cycling in soils.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about 1.6 billion people depend on forests for employment, income generation and subsistence. The FAO warns that deforestation sparked by an ever-increasing demand for food, materials and fuel is degrading ecosystems and diminishing water availability.
Forests are also huge carbon sinks and, as such, feature prominently in international strategies to combat climate change. According to a report by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), forests may be capable of absorbing approximately 10 percent of all global emissions by 2050.
Research indicates that, globally, an estimated 570 million hectares could be available for forest restoration. If restored, these areas could sequester about 440 billion metric tons of CO2.
Because of the ability of forests to sequester large amounts of carbon, forest restoration has become a critical part of the Paris Agreement. The multinational accord, signed by 195 countries in 2016, seeks to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees or more above a preindustrial baseline in the hopes of staving off the worst effects of climate change.
The Paris Accord wasn’t the first global effort by governments to tackle forest conservation. The 1992 Earth Summit, which gathered leaders from 105 nations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, resulted in the adoption of the Rio Convention aimed at conserving biodiversity, mitigating global warming and combating desertification. Participating governments also agreed on a framework for sustainable development – but via forestry principles that weren’t legally binding.
Tony Simons, director general of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), told Mongabay that despite harboring 90 percent of the world’s biodiversity, forests were largely left behind when the Rio Convention was devised and adopted in 1992.
“Forestry was a political battle: this saw it lag behind as the first three got a framework convention,” Simsons told Mongabay. “This was until the Bali Action in 2007 during COP13 [when] Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) was included in the Bali Action Plan as a component of curbing emissions.”
REDD is a U.N. policy mechanism first negotiated under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 2005 to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions by providing financial incentives for keeping their forests in the ground. In 2010 it was expanded to include other conservation and management principles, and is now denoted as REDD+.
The Rio Convention, which includes the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCDD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), acknowledge that forests are critical in achieving their respective goals.
Tim Christophersen, chief terrestrial ecosystems expert at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) told Mongabay that the CBD later revised its forest biodiversity program, which contributed to subsequent global conservation agreements.
“This paved the way for the forest-related Aichi Targets (5, 7, 11 14 and 15), which are very ambitious and cover almost all aspects of sustainable forest management,” Christophersen said.
The Aichi Biodiversity targets are part of the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity adopted during the tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10) in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan. There are 20 targets in all, which aim to achieve broad biodiversity safeguards by 2020. For instance, Target 5 seeks to halve the overall rate of habitat loss while significantly reducing degradation and fragmentation.
Progress in Africa – and lack thereof
Africa contains a significant portion of the world’s forest cover – including its second-largest rainforest. To see how Africa was faring in its progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, UNEP conducted a 2016 mid-term review.
Overall, UNEP found nine out of the 20 targets were progressing towards their goals, but at an “insufficient rate,” five showed no progress and three appear to be regressing further away from target goals. These three – Targets 4, 5 and 12 – pertain to sustainable production and consumption, habitat loss reduction and extinction prevention. The report indicates only two targets – 16 and 17 – which are concerned with international agreement ratification and action plan documentation are on track to achieve their goals. For one target – 14 – there was not enough data for UNEP to make an assessment.
One of the three targets UNEP assessed as regressing is Target 5, which aims to reduce habitat loss. The report indicates the continent lost between 0.2 percent and 2.57 percent of its forest cover every year from 2001 through 2013. Satellite data referenced in the report indicate deforestation accelerated in that period, with 2013 experiencing the most tree cover loss.
Professor Godwin Kowero, executive secretary of the African Forest Forum (AFF), told Mongabay that while some regions are seeing progress, Africa as a whole is not likely to achieve Target 5 as its forest loss has accelerated.
“The rate of forest loss globally has decreased in developed countries, and places like Latin America has seen an increase in forest cover, but the rate of deforestation is still a bother in developing countries, Kowero said. “Forest degradation is difficult to monitor, but we still have a long way to go in achieving the target.”
Africa’s deforestation drivers are many. Among the biggest, says Harrison Kojwang, an environment and natural resources consultant based in Namibia, are charcoal production, timber harvesting, agriculture expansion, mining, oil and gas exploration, and the curing of tobacco.
Target 15 is one of the five targets that show little to no progress, according to UNEP. This target aims to conserve and restore at least fifteen percent of degraded ecosystems by 2020, and one way Africa is exploring to meet this goal is through the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100). AFR100 is a country-led program devised to restore 100 million hectares of land by 2030. The program’s restoration activities are supported through national development financing amounting to around $1 billion and $540 million in private sector funding.
AFR100 was launched during COP21 in Paris in 2015. So far, 21 African countries have committed at least 63.3 million hectares of land for forest landscape restoration.
However, there appears to have been some progress made towards other forest-related Aichi targets, such as Target 11. Focused on aquatic environments, Target 11 aims to see 10 percent of coastal and marine areas and 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas conserved by 2020. These areas include peatlands, coastal wetlands and mangrove forests.
Peatlands and mangroves are particularly high carbon-value ecosystems. A report by Wetlands International referenced by UNCCD found 25 to 30 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon is stored in peatlands, and that the decomposition of drained peatland generates 1.3 billion tons of C02 per year. A 2010 study published in Nature found mangrove degradation releases between 0.07 and 0.42 billion tons of CO2 annually.
In its progress report, UNEP notes that protected area coverage in Africa has steadily increased since 1990 and is making progress towards the terrestrial and marine coverage elements of Aichi Target 11. The report found 13.8 percent of terrestrial and inland aquatic environments and 3.7 percent of marine and coastal areas were included in protected areas in 2014.
Yet, despite that progress, UNEP considers progress towards Target 11 insufficient to meet its goal unless efforts are improved.
Dr. Martin Nganje, president of the Africa Section of the Society for Conservation Biology and a consultant at the African Forest Forum based in Cameroon, disagrees with this. He said that at its current rate of progress, Africa is likely to meet the requirements of Target 11.
“Reducing the rates of loss and degradation of these natural ecosystems offer cost-effective strategies that deliver immediate climate action,” Nganje told Mongabay.
Trans-boundary policies enacting wildlife monitoring activities outside protected areas are also beginning to create incentives for protection of forest and forest resources used as wildlife corridors by member states, according to Kojwang.
“Forest management is riding on the objectives of the wildlife protection,” he said. “Namibia and Botswana have a joint elephant monitoring policy that is benefiting forest protection within the corridors. Also, strong community-based conservancies within which these corridors existing in Southern Africa countries are resulting in better protection of forests.”
For one target – Target 14 – a lack of available data prevented UNEP from assessing its progress. This goal pertains to the safeguarding of ecosystem services, which are benefits conveyed to human communities by surrounding natural environments.
One ecosystem benefit is drought mitigation by forests. Trees help bind water in soil and shade the ground from drying sunlight; scientists also believe forests also aid cloud formation as stored water molecules pass from leaves into the air. Research indicates that this lends to more resilience from droughts, with models showing forests have evaporation rates that are 30 percent less than savannahs.
Over the past several years, drought has ravaged parts of Africa – particularly the eastern and southern parts of the continent – leading to widespread famine as agricultural yields plummeted. Experts say better land use and protection could help reduce damage from future droughts; UNEP notes farmer-managed agroforestry projects in several countries have led to greater resilience from drought, as well as bigger yields of corn and other crops.
Kojwang says that while there is a lack of data on overall progress towards Target 14’s ecosystem services protection goal, countries like Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya are showing some headway through REDD+ projects that are collaborating with local communities. However, he said efforts are lacking in the conservation of water catchment areas outside national parks in several regions.
Too much of a good thing?
In September 2015, 193 UN member countries gathered in New York and adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs are aimed at protecting the environment while addressing poverty, increasing economic growth and prosperity, and improving access to health, education, and social resources.
At the January 2017 UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), participating nations adopted the UN 2017-2030 Strategic Plan for . The plan includes a set of six Global Forest Goals (GFGs) and 26 associated targets. These goals intend to, among other things, increase forest area by 3 percent worldwide, enhance forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits, and increase both the area of protected forests and the proportion of forest products produced from sustainably managed forests.
The GFGs are also aimed at supporting the objectives of the International Arrangement on Forests and making progress towards the SGDs, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the Paris Agreement and other international forest-related commitments.
While having in place so many international agreements focused on conserving and restoring forest may sound like a good thing, UNEP’s Christophersen said it is leading to a duplication of efforts that may be negatively affecting forest protection.
“It is contributing to a lack of impact on forests as the projects are too small and fragmented,” he said. “We cannot afford it anymore after the adoption of the SDGs. It costs too much, but more importantly we need to send clear, coherent policy signals to governments and the private sector on forest policy, and this can only come from legally binding instruments, and by implementing the SDGs.”
Christophersen calls for streamlining international forest protection efforts and have countries adopt comprehensive land use plans that aim to restore forest landscape, mitigate climate change effects and conserve biodiversity
“All these efforts related to forest ecosystem and climate change, desertification and combating loss of biodiversity should be coherently planned and implemented under the SDG’s if forests are to be protected,” he said.
Christophersen thinks a merger between the UNFF and CBD forest-focused goals would be the best bet. Barring that, he suggests a slimming-down of UNFF priorities.
“If not [a merger], UNFF should at least only focus on monitoring the forest-related aspects of the SDG implementation, together with the CBD and other key players, and not engage in any other activities,” Christophersen said.
Mongabay reached out to UNFF for comment, but had received no response by press time.
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