• Forests are essential to addressing the myriad of environmental, societal, and climate issues the world is facing right now.
  • They can both help slow climate change as well as protect us from the coming impacts.
  • By helping protect and grow forests we can also boost and create jobs.

What do these climate challenges have in common: carbon emissions, extreme heat, wildfire, water security, and saving biodiversity? Answer: Trees are absolutely central to solving them all.

That’s why COP26 must be the 'Forest COP', ignoring a few loud naysayers to boldly move forward on this most powerful natural climate solution. We have a radically inclusive global coalition, from governments to ecoprenuers, that is ready to deliver.

Here are three reasons why we cannot win on climate without a major investment in trees and forests.

We need actions that slow climate change and protect us from it

The rapid acceleration of climate impacts, overwhelming our communities before our eyes, demands we prioritize solutions that both slow climate change and protect us from it—equitably. Trees and forests are proven climate action heroes, capturing 16% of US CO2 emissions, but can do much more.

Just consider urban trees, which here in the US sequester nearly one-fifth of this forest carbon annually and reduce energy use for heating and cooling by 7.2%, avoiding additional emissions. Those same trees are also the best nature-based defense against extreme heat, which already claims 12,000 lives per year in the US, a grim toll projected to rise to 100,000 per year in this century.

Not just any lives. In the US and cities around the world, a map of trees is also a map of income and race, which leaves our most at-risk neighborhoods without the natural cooling and air purification of trees. That’s why my organization created a searchable online Tree Equity Score to show where tree planting and protection is most needed to assure every neighborhood is protected. Planting and protecting trees to achieve Tree Equity in our cities will advance climate action and climate justice.

We are solving more than one crisis

Our climate crisis is intertwined with other profound crises. That means we must insist on multi-tasking climate solutions that simultaneously solve other problems, and forests shine here also.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the intersection of climate change and our horrifying biodiversity crisis. Forests, home to 80% of terrestrial wildlife, are this intersection. Dying and burning forests lead to lost habitat. Conserving, restoring and growing healthy and resilient forests, of the right types in the right places, is the foundation for both carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

Forests and trees must be high on the COP26 agenda.
Forests and trees must be high on the COP26 agenda.
Image: Credit: vagabond54/Shutterstock

Here’s what this looks like in action. My organization is partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance, and Salesforce to reforest climate-safe habitat for the ‘I‘iwi (above), ‘A¯ kepa, and other birds being inundated with invasive mosquitos aided in their spread by climate change.

To help these birds survive and thrive in a changing climate, we are planting a forested migration corridor on Mauna Kea to help the birds access habitat at different elevations. We are also helping fund a successor to the Island’s legendary reforestation expert, Baron Horiuchi, to carry forward his vital expertise on tree species selection, seedling cultivation, and resilient reforestation techniques that have powered this and another projects. So when you hear people falsely suggest that a major push on reforestation to ramp up carbon sequestration will come at the expense of biodiversity, you can share this story as evidence that reforestation done right will save species and our climate in one fell swoop.

We need climate action that is also job creation

It is a hard truth that climate action will require sunsetting certain parts of our economy that are not compatible with a stable climate. And our push for Climate Justice will not be authentic if it does not directly address the underlying problem in frontline communities—lack of economic opportunities.

Well, money doesn’t grow on trees, but jobs definitely do. Just consider that here in the US, the world’s leading timber producer, our private forest sector alone already employs more than 2.5 million people with a payroll of $109 billion. These people play diverse roles, from landowners, foresters and nursery technicians to folks working in forest products manufacturing.

Restoring and conserving trees and forests can boost job creation.
Restoring and conserving trees and forests can boost job creation.
Image: American Forests

Urban forests are also a powerhouse job creator, with diverse career opportunities and entry points, from hands-on arborist positions that can be accessed without a college degree to technology and business management roles, including a robust environment for incubating small businesses. This means that a massive investment to achieve Tree Equity in our cities can address chronic underemployment in the same lower-income neighbourhoods that are systemically lacking in trees.

Whether leading wildfire resilience treatments in rural communities or planting trees in cities, there is strong research confirming we can create hundreds of thousands more jobs in forests for climate, and that they will accrue significantly within disadvantaged communities. That’s one reason why the Build Back Better Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act together propose to invest almost $40 billion dollars in forest-climate solutions—the biggest such investment in US history.

With so much to gain, it is no wonder we arrive at COP26 with a diverse community of forest leaders ready to deliver. This includes 1t.org, which has brought the sprawling global forest movement under one tent, from governments and companies to NGOs and youth groups. I’m proud that 1t.org US, the first regional chapter, has already secured US pledges to conserve, restore and grow more than 50 billion trees, and established a vibrant community that is helping all partners do more and do it better by learning, collaborating, and innovating together.

The clock is ticking on climate, and our forests. With each explosive wildfire season and heat wave, we are losing lives and forests that could be saved, along with critical ground in the push to hold warming to 1.5C. So let’s make COP26 the “Forest COP” and invest in forest-climate solutions like never before. Our climate and communities depend on it.