Conservation news

The forested path to climate stability (commentary)

In 2017, the world lost 39 million acres (nearly 16 million hectares) of tropical forests — an area equivalent in size to Bangladesh — at a near-record rate of 40 football fields every minute for the entire year, according to Global Forest Watch.

Halting and reversing deforestation is critical for climate stability — this alone could reduce the world’s net carbon emissions by up to 30 percent. Furthermore, forests and land offer the most cost-effective way to store more carbon right now. We need to significantly elevate investment in these solutions. Currently, just over 1 percent of global climate mitigation-related development funding is invested in forest and land mitigation strategies.

In September, leaders from around the world will gather in California for the Global Climate Action Summit. The agenda focuses on the twin truths of climate change: While we are making real progress, we need to move much more ambitiously and quickly to seize the opportunities right in front of us.

Arguably there is no greater opportunity or need than protecting and restoring forests, especially in tropical regions.

Tropical rainforest in Borneo, which houses some of the highest levels of biodiversity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

When forests are cleared for agriculture, the carbon stored in trees and soils is released into the atmosphere, fueling climate change. However, trees and other plants accumulate carbon in vegetation and soils as they grow, and therefore protecting and restoring forests — and grasslands too — represents the only proven technology we have for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere at a scale that matters in the climate fight.

New science is also revealing other ways forests play an integral role in the climate system. Forests recycle water vapor and affect wind and cloud formation to keep temperatures cool locally and impact rainfall patterns at great distances. As a result, agricultural production — which, of course, is the source of our food — depends on maintaining the world’s remaining forests.

To emphasize forests and land use in global climate dialogues, a growing movement is rallying under a simple slogan: “30 x 30.” In other words, forests and land use should constitute 30 percent of our investments in reducing carbon emissions through 2030.

The case for action is urgent, as current trends are headed in the wrong direction. The leading driver of deforestation is agricultural expansion, mostly for industrial-scale production of commodities such as beef, soybeans, and palm oil to satisfy ever-growing demands from consumers. With populations and incomes increasing, demand for these commodities is expected to continue to grow.

Lowland rainforest in Indonesia. The forests of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea store vast amounts of carbon but are being destroyed and degraded by demand for timber, wood pulp, and palm oil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Oil palm plantation in Malaysia. Photo Credit: Rich Carey/Shutterstock.

Many promising developments will be showcased in California next month, including initiatives by state and local governments that are working with companies to change how land is managed in forested areas of Brazil, Indonesia, and other tropical countries. During the Summit, leaders will highlight partnerships with indigenous communities, whose territories harbor much of the world’s remaining intact forests and whose lives depend on the forests, to chart development pathways that are more sustainable and equitable.

Complementing actions in developing countries, consumers and national governments in industrialized countries are starting to do their parts. Through purchasing decisions and procurement policies that favor products certified as legal and sustainable, they are providing market incentives that reward improved forest and land management.

Of course, there remains much work yet to come. For example, we need to end policies that perversely encourage the use of forest land and products under a false banner of renewable energy. When carbon-rich forests, peatlands, and grasslands are cleared to produce biofuel crops, such as corn, oil palm, and soybeans, it can take decades to compensate for the initial pulse of carbon emissions from land conversion by substituting biofuels for fossil fuels.

While it is true that trees burned to generate electricity may eventually grow back and recapture the carbon emitted, we need to keep carbon out of the atmosphere now, not in 50 years. With climate change, timing is everything.

There are many paths to climate stability, and we need to follow all of them. Some of these paths — and particularly those that lead through fields and forests — are less traveled. We have willing companions in governments, companies, farmers, and indigenous peoples. It is now time to ramp up the pace and scale of our political and financial support for their efforts.

Tropical forests in places like Costa Rica (pictured) can be an important source of livelihoods by attracting nature-oriented tourists. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Belinda Morris is a program officer at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation focused on climate and land use.

Frances Seymour is a senior advisor to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and a distinguished senior fellow at World Resources Institute, where she conducts research on forest and governance issues. Frances will be speaking on forests and land use at the Global Climate Action Summit.

Disclosure: The Packard Foundation is a current Mongabay funder.

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