The debate about how best to cut carbon emissions often centres around energy: the need to adopt more renewables, reduce the use of coal, develop less polluting cars and other clean energy solutions.

But one of the most significant ways to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being leached into the atmosphere is to conserve forests, especially tropical forests.

Stopping deforestation, restoring forests and improving forestry practices could remove 7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually by 2030, according to new analysis from the World Resources Institute (WRI).

And that is the equivalent of getting rid of 1.5 billion cars – more than all of the cars in the world today.

Image: World Resources Institute

Carbon storehouses

Mature forests store enormous quantities of carbon, both in the trees and vegetation itself and within the soil in the form of decaying plant matter. Forests in areas such as the Congo and the Amazon represent some of the world’s largest carbon stores on land.

But when those forests are cut down, the carbon is released into the atmosphere, accelerating the rate of climate change. So much carbon is released by deforestation that it contributes up to one-fifth of global man-made emissions, more than the world’s entire transport sector, according to Greenpeace.

Since the 1960s, nearly half of the world’s rainforests have been lost. According to satellite data, tropical forests are being destroyed at a rate of about 8 million hectares (80,000 square kilometres) a year – an area equivalent in size to the Czech Republic, according to Conservation International.

Brazil is trying to crack down on illegal logging
Image: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

An enormous 45.5% of Brazil’s total carbon emissions were due to deforestation between 2001 and 2013, as swathes of the Amazon disappeared.

Avoiding deforestation could deliver more than 40% of total emissions reductions offered by low-cost solutions, according to the WRI’s analysis. Low-cost is defined as taking less than $100 a year to reduce a tonne of carbon dioxide emissions.

Brazil and Indonesia together contribute more than 50% of carbon emissions from tree cover loss across the tropics, and therefore offer the greatest mitigation opportunity for avoiding deforestation, the WRI says.

The world had an especially bleak year for tree loss in 2016, as shown by the chart below.

Image: World Resources Institute

The loss is 51% higher than the previous year and is equivalent to an area about the size of New Zealand.

Deforestation happens for a number of reasons: the land is needed for agriculture or raising cattle, logging for wood and paper, and housing as urban sprawl spreads into forest areas.

Forest fires are also a significant cause of deforestation and played a major role in the 2017 spike.

There is no simple solution to avoiding deforestation, especially when developing countries need more food and housing. While forest-related climate solutions are critical, they must be balanced with the need for greater food production as populations and incomes rise, the report notes.

But the good news is that all countries acknowledged the role played by deforestation at the Paris climate summit at the end of 2015, where nearly 200 countries agreed to keep global temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

And the 50 or more developing countries who share the world’s tropical forests promised to crack down on illegal forestry, replant trees and restore degraded forest lands.