Forests are essential. And not just to help prevent climate change, but for life.

Worldwide, 1.6 billion people depend on forests for food, medicine and fuel, as well as their jobs and livelihoods. Forests provide a habitat for plants and animals. They are believed to contain over 30 million species of plants and animals; half of the earth’s wildlife and at least two-thirds of its plant species. They currently provide sources for a quarter of today’s medicines: 70% of plants with anti-cancer properties are found only in the rainforest.

And of course, forests regulate the climate. They are second only to the oceans as the largest global store of carbon. When they are cleared, burned or degraded, they turn from carbon sink to carbon source, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Deforestation is responsible for up to 15% of global annual carbon dioxide emissions – greater than the world’s entire transport sector.

Rainforest once covered 14% of the earth’s land surface; more than half has gone up in smoke and now it covers a mere 6%. Experts estimate that if “business as usual” continues, the last remaining rainforest could be consumed in less than 40 years.

The threat is clear, and business as usual is not an option. But in the last four years, momentum has been building across businesses, governments and civil society to step up to this challenge.

In November 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) – which brings together more than 400 retailers and manufacturers from 70 countries with combined sales of $3.1 trillion – announced a commitment to help achieve zero-net deforestation by 2020 by sustainably sourcing in their supply chains the four commodities that drive most tropical deforestation: palm oil, soya, beef, paper and pulp.

In June 2012, at the Rio+20 conference, momentum gathered further with the announcement of the Tropical Forests Alliance (TFA) – a joint initiative between the CGF and the US government to “forge a private-public partnership to support a concerted international effort to reduce deforestation by promoting sustainable supply chains”. The TFA continues to grow with the addition of many more governments, NGOs and companies.

And in September this year, as part of a UN summit on climate change in New York, over 180 governments, multinational companies and NGOs pledged to halt the loss of the world’s natural forests by 2030, halve the rate of deforestation by the end of this decade and restore hundreds of millions of acres of degraded land. These efforts could save between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year by 2030 – the equivalent of taking all the world’s cars off the road – and will be an important part of limiting global temperature rises by 20C.

Nearly $3 billion has been made available to reward good performance by tropical forest countries through REDD and other mechanisms. Brazil and Indonesia are already receiving such funds and many more have the opportunity to do so through the World Bank-managed Carbon Fund. At the NY summit, the UK, Germany and Norway pledged to enter into up to 20 programmes over the next couple of years to pay countries for reducing their deforestation, which could be worth more than an additional $1 billion.

Countries, businesses, charities and indigenous groups are also committing to restoring 150 million hectares (370 million acres) of degraded landscapes and forest areas by 2020, and speed up restoration so that another 200 million hectares are restored by 2030. Restoration of 350 million hectares by the end of the next decade – an area greater than the whole of India – would have benefits for the climate by storing carbon and taking pressure off primary forests.

Brazil has made huge strides in reducing deforestation in the Amazon, providing inspiration and practical insights on how we can successfully reconcile the need to protect forests while driving economic growth and social benefit. Since 2005, rates of deforestation have dropped 70% below the historical average. Through a combination of public policy and private-sector commitments, 3.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide have been kept out of the atmosphere. At the same time, Brazil has has increased its food production by nearly half.

This gathering momentum has brought us to a tipping point on deforestation. The New York summit demonstrated that there is now a growing “coalition of the willing” of governments, businesses, NGOs and indigenous peoples actively aligned around a common vision. Among other things, we now need more businesses to step up and make no-deforestation commitments – and governments to prioritise REDD+ by embedding predictable, large-scale and sustainable results-based financing for forest protection in a new climate-change agreement.

The world is full of seemingly intractable problems, but ending deforestation is not one of them. We know what needs to be done. We just need the collective political will to do it.

The Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015 Report is now live.

More on forest conservation
Did deforestation help Ebola spread?
How do we collaborate on deforestation?
Why palm oil is bad for wildlife

Author: Jeff Seabright is chief sustainability officer at Unilever.

Image: A woman walks with her greyhound dogs along a path in the Durand forest near the French border to Switzerland, in Ferney Voltaire April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse