Can we halt runaway climate change? Forests hold the key

Alistair Monument, Practice Leader, Forests at WWF International

© Staffan Widstrand / WWF

Climate change continues to dominate the headlines as we start the new year. As world leaders gather in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting, we need to remember that the next few years are going to be critical to put the world on the path to a more sustainable future that safeguards people and the natural resources we rely upon.

For the sixth year in a row, “Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” holds a spot in the top five global risks in terms of impact, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019.

The new report comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which underscored the small window of opportunity we have to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and boost climate action efforts.

Natural ecosystems are still the best carbon-capture technology available and forests are an important part of the solution. Ending forest conversion, preserving the forest carbon sink, and restoring forests has the potential to avoid more than one-third of global emissions. Yet deforestation and forest degradation continue at alarming rates — the world lost more than one football pitch of forest every second in 2017, adding up to an area equivalent to the whole of Italy over the year.

The WEF Global Risks Report is another stark reminder that we must change the ways we use land and the resources it provides. We need governments, businesses, financial institutions, civil society and everyone to coalesce around a New Deal for Nature and People that addresses the underlying drivers of loss. Protecting nature is not only the right thing to do, but it is also an economic risk reduction and management imperative, and it’s essential to our security and wellbeing.

© Mauri Rautkari / WWF

The case for forests

Halting deforestation, protecting natural forests, sustainably managing production forests and promoting landscape restoration are proven, cost-effective, and readily available methods to reduce carbon emissions and conserve biodiversity. Yet forests aren’t being invested in at a rate that represents either their actual contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation or their non-carbon benefits, like clean air, medicinal plants or habitats for wildlife. Just 2 per cent of international climate finance goes to forests, while subsidies and investments in sectors driving deforestation amount to 40 times more than investments in protecting forests. This needs to change if we are to realize the full potential of forests.

Ambitious forest action should be included in every country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs), with targets both to conserve and enhance forests as a carbon sink, and to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. This is essential for countries to not just meet their climate targets but also to take action on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The human impact on forests goes beyond biodiversity and climate targets. It has a profound impact on the human side of global risks. Disease outbreaks are on the rise, and research shows that increasing deforestation and tree-cover loss is linked to 31 per cent of outbreaks like Ebola, Zika and Nipah virus. The potential of climate change to accelerate the transmission patterns of infectious diseases such as Zika, malaria and dengue fever is also rising.

For businesses, keeping forests resilient is key to mitigating long-term supply risk. This risk not only affects businesses that source products from forests, such as timber, but any industry that sources products coming from the land — whether it’s pharmaceutical companies that source products from forests, beer manufacturers that source water originating from forests, or food companies that rely on commodities that only grow in specific, predictable climates.

Public relations risk is also a key driver. With awareness about sustainability and monitoring capabilities increasing, companies need to address their supply chain and their impact on forests, even if they are not directly connected to forests.

We are already seeing positive steps by companies to go beyond their supply chains to invest in sustainable solutions for conserving and restoring the forest landscapes they source from, for e.g. companies supporting deforestation-free meat and soy in the Cerrado.

© Michel Roggo / WWF

Forests as climate champions

Given today’s technological advancements and scientific knowledge about the trajectory and impacts of climate change, there is no excuse for inaction. If we don’t halt deforestation and forest degradation, we run the risk of forests turning into carbon emitters and losing all the valuable ecosystem services they provide, such as clean water and flood prevention.

As world leaders gather in Davos for the WEF meeting, we need to remember that forests can be our greatest allies in addressing the most pressing environmental and social threats of our time. Let’s join together to protect them before it’s too late.