Of the many events that have marked 2020 — from a devastating fire season to a fraught-but-momentous US election to a raging pandemic — an important anniversary warrants reflection and calls for action. December 12 marks five years since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The agreement directs each of the 195 country signatories and the European Union to develop their own emission reduction targets and the strategies by which they endeavor to achieve them. It is the first truly global commitment to fight the climate crisis.
The notable achievement will be commemorated this Saturday with the virtual Climate Ambition Summit cohosted by the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and France in partnership with Chile and Italy. It is expected that enhanced national climate actions will be announced at the event.
The explicit inclusion of forests, the REDD+ framework, and results-based payments in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement were landmark signals to countries to prioritize forests as part of their wider climate actions. Alongside the swift and deep decarbonization of our economies, the agreement’s goal to keep global temperature rise to well below 2°C cannot be met without forests.
Five years on from Paris, we must continue to use the agreement as our North Star as we endeavor to end deforestation and protect stable forests and to accelerate REDD+ action at scale with all relevant stakeholders.
Forests provide myriad benefits: from carbon capture and sequestration to air filtration, water regulation, medicines, livelihoods, and cultural needs. They also provide habitat for more than three-quarters of the world’s life on land. Yet despite overwhelming evidence of their importance to people and nature, forests around the world continue to vanish before our eyes. In 2019 alone, the tropics lost nearly 12 million hectares of tree cover. That’s close to 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every minute.
The forests being destroyed contain so much carbon that even if we decided to restore them immediately, they would not be able to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere in time to meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement nor to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Forests that we lose in moments require decades, if not centuries, to grow and recover to the point that their stored carbon is regained. This means that we need to stop deforestation and forest degradation first and foremost — and we need to do so fast.
In addition to saving forests threatened by imminent destruction, we need to prioritize the long-term conservation of stable forests — those not yet disturbed or facing disturbance. To date, these forests have received significantly fewer resources and less representation in country and donor strategies for forest climate action even though they actively draw carbon out of the atmosphere and make up a large portion of total global carbon storage in forests.
But what can we do to keep our forests standing to help mitigate climate change? The world needs large-scale, aggregated efforts, and REDD+ programs can help. REDD+ programs provide several of the elements needed to bend the curve of deforestation away from forest loss and to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the interventions that are not found in smaller-scale forest carbon projects: the right scale to address the drivers of deforestation, the active engagement of governments at all levels, and the involvement of all relevant stakeholders.
By working at the national or subnational level, REDD+ programs employ tools that target the true scale of the problem and can be more effective in addressing the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation by developing policies and actions that consider multiple land uses, such as farming, ranching, logging, and conservation. Because they must adhere to the Cancun Safeguards, REDD+ programs include social and environmental safeguards that protect nature and people from possible negative outcomes or trade-offs like displacement or loss of livelihoods, along with requirements around full and effective participation of relevant stakeholders, including Indigenous peoples and local communities and the respect of their knowledge and rights.
REDD+ programs also benefit from the key role that governments play by doing things that only they can do: improving land-use planning, aligning regulatory and fiscal policies to forest goals, strengthening law enforcement, creating official conflict resolution mechanisms, and recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights and territorial claims. Many national and subnational governments, such as states or provinces, have spent more than a decade building up the institutional infrastructure they need for a REDD+ program and have been preparing to deliver on their forest protection targets through measured emissions reductions at scale.
But it’s not just governments that can take a leading role in large-scale forest climate action. With a REDD+ program, all of the relevant stakeholders in a given landscape — including businesses, Indigenous peoples and local communities, and civil society — get a seat at the table to plan a development strategy that identifies and tackles the threats and drivers of deforestation while promoting sustainable livelihoods. Instead of investing in small-scale forest protection through piecemeal carbon credit projects, the private sector and civil society should be working collaboratively with governments at the landscape scale to accelerate transformational change when it comes to land use that promotes additionality and climate integrity and benefits people and nature.
Transformational change is what we need to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and to transition to a more sustainable world. By taking a holistic, inclusive, system-wide approach to forest protection activities, REDD+ programs are the best means to turn the tide on deforestation and the emissions it contributes to our atmosphere. How it looks in each country will be different, but we must continue to use the ambition of the Paris Agreement as our guiding North Star to keep the world’s forests standing and able to sustain all of us who depend on them.