Forests need to be at the forefront of the global policy agenda

By Hermine Kleymann, Policy Manager, WWF Global Forest Practice

© Luca Scudiero / WWF-Italy

Controlling climate change, halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity and achieving sustainable development for all: these are three of the biggest global challenges of the coming decades. And forests are central to all of them.

In Africa, where I live, these challenges span across the social structure — from governments struggling to curb climate change and fulfil their commitments under international agreements, to local communities and Indigenous People vying for clean water, energy access and education. Fuelwood, for example, is a looming issue across the continent. Ninety per cent of wood harvested in Africa is used for fuel, yet it is also a leading cause of forest degradation.

Over the next few weeks, global leaders will be coming together to discuss agreements on conservation of biodiversity as well as climate change. First, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will be meeting in Egypt for the final time before 2020, when the Aichi Targets for protecting biodiversity expire. Then in December the annual UN climate conference will be held in Poland, on the back of the recent IPCC report highlighting the dangers of global warming exceeding 1.5°C and identifying options to raise ambition by 2020.

We’re calling on leaders to put the value of forests at the centre of these discussions, as well as the wider global agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This call couldn’t be more urgent.

The rate of forest loss and degradation is still alarmingly high, particularly in the tropics, and intact forest landscapes — which are richest in both biodiversity and carbon — are becoming rarer. More than 75 per cent of Earth’s land areas, including many forest landscapes, are substantially degraded, undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people. WWF’s newly published Living Planet Report shows that species populations globally have fallen by 60 per cent since 1970, and habitat loss — including deforestation — poses the greatest threat.

Ending tropical forest loss — which causes more emissions than the European Union — is also essential if we’re to have any chance of keeping climate change within 1.5°C. The recent IPCC report is a stark reminder that overshooting this limit even temporarily risks irreversible and potentially catastrophic impacts on species, ecosystems and people.

© Alain Compost / WWF

Meeting the 2020 deadlines

For the immediate future, achieving all forest-related commitments by 2020 needs to be centre stage. The CBD Aichi Targets are actually the most relevant targets for forests as they represent the first time that 196 governments legally committed to halt, protect, sustainably manage and restore forests, amongst others. And under the Paris Climate Agreement, 197 countries committed to action and funding to protect and restore forests.

These treaty obligations are complemented by voluntary commitments looking forward to 2030 under the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) Strategic Plan, the New York Declaration on Forests and the Bonn Challenge, which promotes forest landscape restoration.

Achieving the CBD’s forest-related targets will benefit more than biodiversity alone. Recent research suggests that forest protection and restoration, combined with other “natural climate solutions”, can provide over a third of the climate mitigation needed between now and 2030. At the same time, conserving forests underpins and contributes towards all the Sustainable Development Goals.

The solutions are in front of us. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for example. In Luki, local communities, especially women, have taken ownership of forest conservation and have played a key role in mitigating deforestation and forest degradation. Not only has this helped conserve biodiversity but also created new more sustainable sources of income for local communities. The woman I met in Luki could not have been prouder of their achievement, showing that empowering women yields benefits for both nature and local wellbeing.

The economic case is also evident: according to The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs. For regions like Asia and Africa, the cost of inaction in the face of land degradation is at least three times higher than the cost of action.

Up to and beyond 2020

Breaking down silos is important for increasing impact and efficiency, but also for understanding and addressing trade-offs — for instance between food security, biodiversity conservation and land-based carbon dioxide removal technologies. Forest landscape restoration is one proven approach that can benefit people, nature and climate: CBD parties should support this by endorsing a UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, as proposed by El Salvador.

Equally, all countries need to more comprehensively include forest-related climate targets when updating their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by 2020. Forest conservation and restoration have enormous climate potential, but countries could do far more to quantify the carbon savings they could achieve, in order to spur action and increase ambition.

Unlocking the potential of forests for climate, biodiversity and development will require increased financial support. It’s estimated that only 2 per cent of international climate finance goes to forests, while subsidies and investments in sectors that drive deforestation (like agriculture) are 40 times greater than investments in protecting forests.

© Brent Stirton / Getty Images

Governments, business and the finance sector all have an important role to play in divesting from activities that directly or indirectly drive deforestation and forest degradation, and instead supporting protection, sustainable management and restoration of forest landscapes.

And included in all of this, we need localized solutions enabled for and developed WITH people who are closest to forests — local communities and Indigenous People. Forests and people are at the heart of solutions we need to maintain a living planet, and we should never forget that as we frame policies for the future.

Looking up to beyond 2020, a new global deal for nature and people is needed — a deal which bends the curve of biodiversity loss by 2030. Science tells us we cannot afford working in silos — we must look across sectors, using the SDGs as an engine. We must rerail a societal paradigm shift for people and nature. A new set of coherent targets post 2020 across all Rio Conventions to increase impact for people and nature. With forests being at the core of it.