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How protecting forests can help us tackle climate change and meet net-zero targets

Deforestation is currently responsible for 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Deforestation is currently responsible for 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Reuters/Adriano Machado

Faelle Dubois
Project Specialist, Climate and Nature, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Nature and Biodiversity

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Forests host and protect 80% of terrestrial biodiversity and more than 1.6 billion people are dependent on them for their livelihoods.
  • They also help regulate the Earth's climate so keeping them standing is an immediate, natural and cheap solution towards meeting net zero goals.
  • Taking a large-scale approach to preserving forests can lead to greater impact and ensure long-term success of conservation efforts.

Forests are essential for our planet and our survival. This is well known, but what is less understood is how forests also play a central role in our climate and how, by protecting them, we can reach net zero.

Reaching net zero is fundamental for our future, as it is a state at which the march of global warming can be stopped, when greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced out by the amount removed.

1.6 billion people depend on forests

More than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, as forests provide food, water, wood and employment. Our ecosystems are also dependant on forests as they host and protect 80% of terrestrial biodiversity; act as flood barrier; recharge groundwater, and so much more.

Forests also regulate our climate as they sequester greenhouse gas emissions through photosynthesis when protected or restored, and release it when cut down or degraded. In this way, forests can both be a solution to, and a cause of, climate change.

It just depends on how we care for our forests, whether they are cut down or protected, and at what scale.

Deforestation is largely caused by farming

Deforestation is mainly caused by agricultural expansion – mainly soya and palm oil, conversion to pastureland, urban expansion and destructive logging. Forest loss is currently responsible for 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

One study estimated the annual gross carbon emissions from tropical tree cover loss between 2015 and 2017 was equivalent to 4.8 billion tons – meaning it is causing more emissions each year than 85 million cars in their lifetime.

The impact of forests loss for climate is bound to increase as more forests are cut down, release the carbon they hold and as they cannot sequester additional greenhouse gases emissions in the years to come.

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Forests absorb around 15 gigatons of CO2 equivalent each year, which is almost twice as much as what the US emits annually. However, deforestation and forest degradation release more than 8 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere each year – more than half of what it absorbs.

Recently, the Amazon rainforest was even found to release more carbon than it sequesters, as a direct result of deforestation and climate change. It is clear, therefore, that there is an urgent need to keep our forests standing if we want to tackle climate change.

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Protecting forests can reduce emissions

The great news is that the conservation of forests, alongside other nature-based solutions, can provide up to 37% of the emissions reductions needed to tackle climate change. This makes them one of the most cost-effective and immediate climate solutions, while also protecting invaluable biodiversity and sustaining livelihoods.

In short, keeping our forests standing provides us with an immediate, natural and cheap solution to reach net zero.

We can all take action at an individual level to help achieve this target. We can each can act and contribute to halting deforestation by making more informed choices such as consuming less; reducing packaging; eating less meat and more sustainable food, and choosing wood products that are responsibly produced.

As a society, we need to value forests more when standing than cut down. Today, forests are economically worth more cut down and cleared, which strongly incentivizes deforestation directly or indirectly.

One way to reverse this trend is by assigning an economic value to the carbon stored in forests, which creates an incentive to favour keeping forests standing.

Conserving forests needs to be at scale

As forest protection and restoration needs to happen at a large scale to reach net zero, 'jurisdictional/landscape' approaches are being developed in different regions of the world to ensure greater impact as they aim to preserve a large area.

By bringing the stakeholders so they can develop an integrated approach to reduce deforestation, jurisdictional/landscape approaches are scaling-up programmes to cover an entire country, state or region.

Focusing on large scale solutions allows carbon sequestration to be maximized as well as benefits for livelihoods and the entire forest ecosystem, while also creating a collaborative approach.

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LEAF Coalition seeks to halt deforestation

One ambitious initiative using this approach is the LEAF Coalition, as it mobilized more than $1 billion of public and private funding to halt deforestation at large scale – such as at a nation or state level.

The initiative targets tropical and sub-tropical forests as they are particularly effective regions because they store more carbon, regenerate faster and often hold irrecoverable carbon.

For instance, particular focus is put on the Amazon rainforest as its preservation is essential to achieve net zero. Despite the rise in agricultural production and cattle-ranching driving deforestation across Brazil, Mato Grosso state has managed to keep its deforestation rate at around 15% of its 2004 peak.

Forests conservation efforts paying off

The efforts to reconcile production with forest conservation are paying off as public entities, private corporations, non-governmental organizations and indigenous communities work together to protect their forests.

Another country tackling its high-deforestation rates is Ghana. Deforestation in Ghana is largely driven by cocoa farming as the West African country produces 20% of all the cocoa in the world.

To protect its forests, Ghana is implementing a large-scale forest protection programme, the Cocoa-Forest REDD+ Programme. This covers a 5.92 million-hectare area located in the southern part of the country, with the aim of benefiting local communities with a population of 12 million people.

Countries preserving their forests should also be rewarded. Guyana is a great example of how a country that protected over 99% of its forest cover over the last four decades.

By valuing its efforts to protect its natural resources, there is an incentive for Guyana to maintain its forests and for other countries to follow its lead as an investment to reach global net zero, while supporting biodiversity and livelihoods in a sustainable way.

Scale up forests protection to strengthen conservation efforts

By scaling up forests protection to cover an entire jurisdiction – such as a state or even a country – conservation efforts are being strengthened and leveraged to reach greater scale and impact.

A jurisdictional approach ensures environmental and social integrity as it leverages the authority that governments have in their jurisdiction to regulate and enforce programmes.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

This ensures better long-term success as it requires a collaborative process involving all the key actors involved in such as large landscape.

Such an approach also enables protecting a larger landscape from deforestation, alongside local biodiversity and livelihoods in a bigger area, while mitigating risks.

Most importantly, in addition to all those benefits, it significantly contributes to regulating our climate by providing the necessary benefits to reach net zero.

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