Ambition is a start, but it’s action that matters — and as 2021 approaches, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Will the global community decisively attack the triple challenge of combating climate change, protecting biodiversity and feeding a fast-growing population?
At UN summits on all three issues next year (UN Climate Change Conference, UN Biodiversity Summit and UN Food Systems Summit), we have the opportunity to pull our world back from the brink and put it on track towards a sustainable future. But to do so we have to aim high, and then — crucially — translate words into actions. While the bulk of our emissions reductions need to come from deep decarbonization and emissions cuts within our economies, we won’t be able to reach the Paris Agreement’s climate goal to keep global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels without forests as a solution.
This is recognized in international agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Bonn Challenge, all of which emphasize forests’ central importance to solving the key challenges we face.
Under the Paris Agreement, each country has to put together a plan of action to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change. These are called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). While the Paris Agreement highlights the role of forests in combating climate change, it’s clear from the current NDCs that we’re not yet doing anywhere near enough to make the most of their potential. The issue here is in fact one of both ambition and action. While we need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, current NDCs and policies are forecast to lead to a disastrous increase of 2.7–3.1°C. This has to be radically improved — and it can be.
While forests feature in the NDCs of 137 out of 165 signatories, quantified ambitions are mostly vague and lack the practical detail needed to transform aspirations into results. But as a recent report from WWF shows, by reducing deforestation and forest degradation, improving forest management, adopting agroforestry, and promoting afforestation, reforestation and forest restoration, we could make up almost 18% of the emissions reductions needed to reach the 1.5°C target — and do it relatively cost-effectively, too.
In broad terms, this means putting a stop to further deforestation and finding ways to scale up regenerative agriculture and agroforestry; it means using and restoring already degraded land, it means working with and empowering local communities and it means getting a handle on land speculation and corruption. Better monitoring and law enforcement are needed, with training and budgets to match, and local land tenure must be strengthened. Sustainability must be enshrined in law, certified, and rewarded right along forest supply chains, and forest landscapes and connectivity must be restored.
The three areas with the greatest GHG mitigation potential are the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia, and many other countries in subtropical and temperate regions can make a big difference as well. But national contexts vary quite a bit, and every country needs its own detailed, tailored plan. Many countries will need extra support.
REDD+ provides the main long-term framework through which developing countries can plan out, implement and monitor forest-based mitigation actions at the scale needed to address the challenge we face, and it’s an area of particular importance for WWF. We’re working around the world to help governments integrate REDD+ strategies with their NDCs, focusing the expertise and convening the power of our global network where we think we can make the most difference. Grassroots involvement is crucial — particularly to strengthen the stewardship rights of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). Some 24% of tropical forest carbon stocks are in IPLC territories, and in areas where IPLC tenure is secure, deforestation rates are two to three times lower.
Raising NDC ambitions and following them up with forest-focused actions is key for the future of the Paris Agreement, but the co-benefits of conserving our forests go beyond climate, particularly when it comes to the SDGs. Billions of people rely on forest resources for their livelihoods, which highlights the importance of sustainable — and equitable — forest land-use planning and development.
For another, the vital ecosystem services forests provide — from purifying air and water to producing and conserving soil, to stabilizing streams and preventing floods — can only function when forests are healthy, so for our own sakes, we need to keep them that way, and restore the ones that aren’t.
Meanwhile, forests contain more than half of the world’s land-based species. Wildlife populations have declined on average by two-thirds in 50 years and protecting, restoring and connecting forest habitats is essential if we’re to have any chance of bending the curve on biodiversity loss.
Connecting these different elements — and others – into one big picture is at the heart of the New Deal for Nature and People that WWF is calling for in 2021. This overarching initiative will set the ambition and drive the action we take in the years ahead as we fight for the future of our planet. Making much stronger use of our forests in our NDCs will be a core part of the effort.