Tackling the climate crisis is essential if we’re to reverse the catastrophic decline in nature — and reversing the decline in nature is essential if we’re to tackle the climate crisis.
As world leaders gather in Madrid for the latest UN climate change conference, there’s a growing awareness of this fact, but finance and policy commitments do not go far enough in response.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to forests. Between 2007 and 2016, forests and other non-agricultural landscapes removed 6 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere per year — equivalent to about one-sixth of the total emissions from fossil fuels — and locked it away in their vegetation, soil, roots and fungi.
Much of the emphasis in public and private sector policies has been on stopping deforestation and expanding forests, necessary measures to help stabilise the climate. But perhaps one of the most under-recognized solutions to climate change are stable forests, including intact forest landscapes, that are not at immediate risk of deforestation or visible degradation. Though they get little attention, these forests make up a large portion of total global carbon storage in forests, are active sinks drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and often suffer unseen degradation. We take these forests for granted, at our peril.
For example, forest wildlife populations have declined by more than half since 1970. Since wild animals play a vital role in seed dispersal, pollination and controlling plant growth, their loss undermines forests’ ability to regenerate and sequester carbon.
So, what needs to happen? First, we need to look after our forest landscapes so they can continue to sequester carbon and provide other services that will become even more vital as the planet warms, like regulating rainfall and water supplies. Investing in conserving our forests today will save us much greater costs in future, but so far has attracted little in the way of climate finance, and international climate governance systems undervalue these stable forests. We want to see actions expanding responsible forest management, recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities to conserve their forest lands, and investing in effective networks of protected areas. We’ve seen success in multi-partner initiatives that bring together finance from the private and public sectors, such as Patrimonio del Peru and Bhutan for Life, part of WWF and partners’ larger efforts to secure long-term funding for protected area networks.
Second, we need to halt further deforestation and forest degradation, especially in the tropics, which could avoid between 1.8 and 12.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. This means not just action on deforestation in forest countries’ contributions to the Paris Agreement, but also from importing countries, in particular to make our food system more sustainable.
Third, we must harness the huge potential of trees for restoring productivity, biodiversity and carbon stocks in deforested and degraded landscapes. While planting more trees has great potential to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, this must be done in a way that works with the needs of local communities, supports food security and helps to restore biodiversity. Done right, forest restoration can strengthen resilience and adaptation for people and nature by connecting and conserving biodiversity hotspots. Agroforestry, where farmers plant trees among crops and livestock, can sequester carbon in the soil while making agricultural systems more resilient and generating a source of income.
The important connection between nature and climate is spelt out in the upcoming Climate, nature and our 1.5°C future: A Synthesis of IPCC and IPBES reports, which looks at the current and future impacts of climate change across different ecosystems, as well as some real-world solutions. It draws on recent comprehensive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that show how nature will suffer as our world heats up — but also how healthy ecosystems can absorb carbon emissions, strengthen resilience and help people and wildlife adapt to climate impacts.
As well as being essential for averting catastrophic climate change, protecting and valuing forests will help restore wildlife and improve the lives of many millions of people. It’s time to put all forests of today and those of the future at the heart of climate action.