Deforestation and Climate Change
Ten thousand years ago, forests covered about half of earth’s land. Roughly a third of these forests have since disappeared, converted for agriculture and other uses. Tropical deforestation is increasing global greenhouse gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions result from tropical deforestation. Because of the role that forests play in regulating climate, sustaining livelihoods, and supporting biodiversity, increasing deforestation in the tropics is a critical issue.
Most forests still standing are degraded or fragmented; less than 20% are intact. Deforestation is concentrated in tropical, developing countries and is driven by the expansion of human settlement and the production of commodities such as palm oil, soy, and beef. International initiatives to reduce deforestation include the New York Declaration on Forests, which has had 180 nations, companies, indigenous groups and other organizations commit to cutting global natural forest loss in half by 2020 - and ending it completely by 2030.
The Consumer Goods Forum, which includes global agricultural commodity companies and consumer goods firms, has pledged to work with suppliers and governments to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020.
Forests are increasingly recognized in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
A related, voluntary program, REDD+, incentivizes developing countries to reduce emissions related to deforestation and degradation, and to increase conservation and sustainable management in exchange for results-based payments. The Paris Agreement, entered into force in 2016, has participating countries set voluntary targets to combat climate change; land including forests was accounted for in targets set by 82% of tropical countries.
The Nature Conservancy has estimated that better land stewardship could achieve 30% of the climate mitigation needed to limit global warming to less than 2oC, an overarching goal behind the Paris Agreement. Despite decades of investment in combating deforestation, however, 2016 saw the largest amount of annual global tree cover loss in the 21st century to date, according to Global Forest Watch.
Eliminating deforestation in the tropics, particularly in places such as Brazil and Indonesia, would be a relatively low-cost, effective and natural way to address climate change. Climate feedback triggered by climate change, such as a high incidence of wildfires, makes the need to reduce deforestation urgent. For efforts to succeed, however, greater vigilance on the part of governments, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations is required.
Forests harbor the world’s most concentrated variety of plant and animal life. Forests cover nearly one-third of Earth’s land area, and house more than 80% of terrestrial biodiversity. Tropical forests are home to the highest number of species per unit of land area, with particularly high rates of biodiversity in the Amazon basin of South America, the Congo basin of Central Africa, and the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia.
In addition, forests with unique compositions, such as those on isolated islands, or with varied topography, host high numbers of endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world. Any change to these habitats can lead to the extinction of the species that depend on them.
International mechanisms designed to help conserve species include the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets designed to be met by 2020, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015.
Others, such as The Consumer Goods Forum, Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, and the New York Declaration on Forests, are focused on achieving zero net deforestation by 2020, and focus on the production of commodities (such as beef and palm oil) that is driving deforestation within tropical forest regions rich in biodiversity.
Regions rich in both biodiversity and endemic species include Madagascar, the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar, and the highlands of Borneo. According to Enough is Enough, a report published by Eyes on the Forest in 2018, forest blocks in Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra, which were some of the last remaining habitats of critically endangered species like tigers, elephants, and orangutan, continue to be converted to palm oil plantations.
Detailed information about the location of areas with rich biodiversity, as well as highly threatened areas, can be used to better prioritize conservation and protection efforts. Biodiversity may be best conserved by minimizing human intrusion into intact and relatively un-fragmented habitats, and by restoring biodiverse areas that have been highly altered.
If areas like this can be identified, continuous monitoring of them could measure progress towards greater biodiversity conservation. Many efforts are already underway to protect biodiversity and mitigate the destruction of forested habitats.
Commodities and Supply Chains
The Consumer Goods Forum, an industry association, estimates that four agricultural commodities - beef, palm oil, paper and pulp, and soy - account for about half of all tropical deforestation. Zero-deforestation commitments and certification can address the social and environmental risk in supply chains. Demand for these commodities is only expected to increase, particularly in emerging markets. Public-private partnerships like the New York Declaration on Forests, which aims to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020, the 2010 Consumer Goods Forum, which pledges to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020, and the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 have set ambitious goals; however, a more precise understanding of related social and environmental risks presented by supply chains is required.
More clarity is needed on links between agricultural expansion and forest impacts, for example. Monitoring systems can facilitate the implementation of protection efforts, while increased transparency can encourage accountability. Improved land tenure data, related to concessions, farm boundaries, and sourcing information can make environmental impacts clearer to everyone interacting with a supply chain. Meanwhile more frequently-updated data on forest changes (now available annually, or as often as weekly across the tropics), could provide a powerful tool to identify supply chain risk, and monitor compliance with deforestation commitments.
Companies must actively monitor the areas where they are sourcing, and make related disclosures; where information proactively disclosed is unavailable, civil society groups and research organizations have filled in the blanks through their own investigations. Non-governmental organizations have been working with companies and governments to develop environmental assessment tools, while certification systems for anti-deforestation requirements have advanced the sustainability agenda.Approaches that take into account the needs of producers, and are adapted to different geographies and supply chains, are necessary to foster agricultural production that minimizes forest impacts. Moratoria on purchasing commodities grown on deforested land have been successful under some conditions, notably in the case of Brazil’s Soy Moratorium in the Amazon, though they have been difficult to extend sector-wide.
A Tropical Forest Alliance 2020-commissioned study published in early 2017 identified 34 different jurisdictional programmes that were being planned or implemented. Hastening the implementation of jurisdictional programs that have a state or regional focus could further bolster progress towards achieving sustainable development goals. Regional processes, such as those tied to Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, have showcased the power of collaborative efforts; a regional pledge signed by seven African governments to shift to sustainable palm oil production, called the Marrakesh Declaration, is one such example.
Forestry and Forest Products
The global forestry industry generates more than $60 trillion in annual revenue, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Companies can be incentivized to pay closer attention to sustainability and supply-chain quality.
Demand for forest products is only increasing, due to population growth and improved living standards - which places added pressure on forest resources. While sustainable forestry efforts (including Ethiopia’s government-led initiative to plant more than 350 million trees in a single day in 2019) can help bolster and conserve resources, unsustainable practices persist. Illegal logging contributes to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions, while depriving governments of essential revenue.
Logging in primary (old growth) forests and in intact forest landscapes typically leads to a cascade of human activity in remote regions, and eventual deforestation. Timber smuggling is not only an economic and environmental problem - it often involves criminal organizations and is tied to wildlife and drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption, conflict, and human rights violations.
These have increased incentives for private businesses to pay closer attention to their supply chains. However, truly effective measures to reduce illegal logging require broad cooperation among governments, the private sector, and civil society; efforts such as the World Resources Institute’s Forest Legality Initiative, WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network, and The Nature Conservancy’s Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade Network are successfully combating illegal logging by supporting government bids to implement related policies, and by working with the private sector to both exclude illegal wood and implement independent monitoring.
Some of the tools for sustainable forest management that have been employed include forest certification and tree plantations; while these plantations can supply some, but not all of the “ecosystem services” (such as air purification) that natural forests provide, they will have to play an increasingly prominent role in providing forest products in the future. Ultimately, though, it is essential that plantations do not completely supplant natural forests. Merely complying with existing laws could save almost 200 million hectares of natural forest in Brazil and Indonesia alone, according to a report published by the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020. An increasing number of countries have put measures in place to reduce imports of illegally-harvested wood.
Forest Landscape Restoration
An area equal to more than twice the size of China is considered suitable for restoration. Most countries have an untapped resource: forest landscapes that could be restored and revitalized. Forest landscape restoration can revive “ecosystem services” (like air purification and climate regulation) and enhance human well-being in areas that have been cleared or degraded.
In Ethiopia, for example, a government initiative resulted in more than 350 million trees being planted in a single day in 2019. Efforts like this can result in the establishment of dense forests, or high-yield agroforestry systems, as well as so-called mosaic systems - where wooded areas are interspersed among fields used for farming.
More than two billion hectares of land have been identified as suitable for restoration around the world, which is an area equivalent to more than twice the size of China. Restoration is therefore a growing investment opportunity; in Latin America and the Caribbean alone, related investments could yield roughly $23 billion in profit over a 50-year period, according to a report published in 2016 by the World Resources Institute.
Thanks to the New York Declaration on Forests, and the Bonn Challenge, there is now a global effort underway to bring 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested land into restoration by 2030.
These efforts are supported by commitments that have been made as part of regional restoration initiatives, including AFR100 in Africa, and Initiative 20x20 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Forest landscape restoration should not increase tree cover beyond what would be ecologically appropriate for a particular location - and should not introduce damaging, non-native species. Forest landscape restoration can diversify economies, reduce the damage caused by natural disasters, generate marketable forest and agricultural products, and support recreation and tourism.
An additional $300 billion per year in global financing is needed for adequate forest restoration and conservation, which can in turn create jobs, help alleviate local poverty, and increase food security. Restoration can meanwhile improve soil and water quality, conserve biodiversity, and help mitigate climate change. For example, reforestation bids such as Ethiopia’s concerted effort can bolster carbon capture and storage - and reduce the impact of emissions. Forest landscape restoration can also help governments meet the requirements of international agreements, such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The well-being of forest communities and Indigenous Peoples is closely tied to their environment; places where communities have strong land rights also have lower rates of deforestation and forest degradation. Improving land rights for local communities and Indigenous Peoples can help preserve forests.
Indigenous Peoples and local communities have the legal right to less than one third of the forests in low- and middle-income countries, according to Commodities and Forests Agenda 2020, published in 2017 by Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 and the WEF. Few governments have established the legal protections needed to secure community land rights, however. As a consequence, Indigenous Peoples are losing their land to governments and corporations. Overall, Indigenous Peoples and local communities have legal rights to at least 513 million hectares of the world’s forests, or about one eighth of the total, according to the World Resources Institute’s 2014 report Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change.
According to the World Resources Institute’s 2014 report, in Indonesia, high levels of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from deforestation are due in part to weak or absent legal rights for forest communities. Another study of 80 forest areas in 10 different countries in South Asia, East Africa, and Latin America showed that community-owned and managed forests produce greater community benefits and improve carbon storage (the storage of carbon after it is emitted into the atmosphere). We will therefore forfeit an important opportunity to combat climate change, if we do not strengthen land rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
Much larger areas of forest are held by communities under customary rights, which are not legally recognized by governments. Most community-held forests are in low- and middle-income countries, where deforestation pressure is strong. When Indigenous Peoples and local communities have weak or no legal rights, their forests tend to be vulnerable to deforestation.
The Commodities and Forests Agenda 2020 report noted that a global consensus is emerging on the need for greater security of land tenure. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals commit member states to ensure that everyone has equal rights to ownership and control over land by 2030. In addition, nearly every country has endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees land and territory rights. In some countries, communities have successfully lobbied for legal changes to recognize their land rights, while others are taking to the streets to voice their demands.
Technology innovation is bolstering forest monitoring efforts. Cutting-edge technologies, like observation satellites and artificial intelligence, are enabling the real-time monitoring of global forest change. The increasing availability and resolution of satellite imagery are resulting in more (and more detailed) pictures, while advanced algorithms are able to quickly process these images in order to detect changes with enough accuracy to inform local forest management.
Advancements in parallel processing, or the division of computer programming among multiple processors, enable these algorithms to be run increasingly cost-effectively, making the continuous monitoring of changes around the globe possible. Meanwhile breakthroughs in data visualization are enabling decision-makers and other non-scientific users to easily access related information, and to act on it.
Increasing internet connectivity, and the proliferation of mobile technology, have also improved the ability to alert law enforcement or local communities about illegal logging or burning taking place in protected forests or moratorium areas. Other technologies are facilitating timber tracking and the tracing of wood products from forest to consumer, while anatomical analyses and other methods are enabling the identification of the species and origin of wood being used in supply chains, in order to bolster accountability.
Technological developments are also addressing challenges in terms of interpreting data - for example, when it comes to identifying statistically significant hotspots for forest change, or quickly identifying changes occurring within important forest areas.
Artificial intelligence is augmenting the examination of forest change, by helping to better predict where change may occur in the future.
High-resolution satellites developed by private companies including Planet, DigitalGlobe, and others should enable the monitoring of the earth’s surface in incredible detail, and at high frequency, providing daily, high-resolution coverage for the first time. In order to properly analyze the massive volume of resulting data, increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence will be crucial.
A significant amount of innovation is being made possible through open data policies and initiatives related to satellite imagery, such as NASA’s Landsat program, which has been amassing millions of images for research and applications, NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) monitoring, used to measure everything from cloud cover to photosynthesis, and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel systems. Radar satellites launched in the recent past can even enable change detection through clouds and smoke, which have presented a significant challenge for tropical forest monitoring in the past.
For protected and conserved areas, this will require a greater focus on all of the quality elements (e.g. representation, connectivity, areas important for biodiversity), especially for those areas where progress has been lower or where appropriate indicators are still lacking. For instance, there is still a lack of global data for tracking management effectiveness, equity, and conservation outcomes in protected and conserved areas. These are important considerations for the development of the monitoring and reporting framework set to be adopted alongside the new global biodiversity framework.
The Creating A Nature-Positive Future report presents the process for negotiating the post-2020 global biodiversity framework pursuant to various decisions of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It discusses the potential benefits of protected and conserved areas for livelihoods, water, and food security, and
as nature-based solutions for climate mitigation and disaster risk reduction. It also outlines some important considerations for more effective and equitable protected and conserved areas.
Successful achievement of ambitious targets for protected and conserved areas would help pave the pathway to the achievement of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. It would also make major contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals and set us on a path towards achieving the 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature”.
Humanity is inextricably linked to forests. Countless livelihoods depend on forested areas, which play critical roles in absorbing carbon, providing food and water, and sustaining biodiversity. However, deforestation, degradation, and fragmentation are diminishing forests, while illegal logging and related corruption are eating away at tax revenue and stirring conflict.
As Parties prepare to adopt the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, it is important to reflect on and learn from the progress made towards the achievement of Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The economic arguments for continuing to invest in nature, including in protected and conserved areas, are clear. The benefits of protecting nature outweigh the costs by at least five to one.
The current economic value of protected areas is estimated at about US 6$ trillion annually, and this figure is likely to rise as intact ecosystems become increasingly important for climate resilience and adaptation. Never has the recognition of diverse forms of conservation been so important to achieve global biodiversity, climate change and sustainable development ambitions. Efforts like the global pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, unveiled at COP26 in late 2021, are now more necessary than ever.