The time to act on forests is now

Sarah Rogerson

People called for greater action to address climate change during COP24 in Katowice, photo: Global Canopy

As negotiators gathered again for the 24th UNFCCC Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, it was clear that nature-based solutions have a vital role to play in meeting the commitments they made three years ago under the Paris Agreement — and that global forests are our best current technology to mitigate climate change.

As Mette Wilkie, Chief of Forestry Policy and Resources at the FAO put it during the Land-use day at COP24: “Forests can be one of the most cost effective and immediate ways to curb climate change.”

Using nature-based solutions to stay below 2 degrees

The Paris Agreement commits nations to work to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, and preferably 1.5 degrees. The nations committed to this limit in order to avoid the devastating impacts on ecosystems, food security and low-lying islands associated with higher temperatures. Although we know that 2 degrees still risks considerable changes to the climate, and significantly more impacts than if we were to successfully keep to 1.5.

A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, commissioned by the UNFCCC, looked into the possible ways to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. There are various pathways, to reach this limit by the end of the century — depending on when we begin to act, and how much we overshoot before we bring it back.

The most dramatic option shows the world significantly over-shooting the 1.5 limit. It assumes that for the present the global population continues to adopt greenhouse gas-intensive lifestyles and then requires new, and so far unproven, carbon capture technologies to pull carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere to get us back to 1.5 degrees within the deadline.

But it is possible to remain under 1.5 degrees without an over-shoot. The IPCC report includes pathways with no or low overshoot, which use afforestation and reforestation, as well as decarbonisation of the power sector.

A recent report by the Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA) found that by just protecting our remaining forests, restoring degraded and recently cleared forest ecosystems, and improving agricultural systems we could avoid the necessary emissions to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming.

Tomasz Chruszczow, the Special Envoy for Climate Change from the Ministry of Environment in Poland, described protecting our forests as the “cheapest, most natural, most obvious solution.”

This solution to 1.5 degrees needs no new carbon capture technologies, but it does require that we start acting immediately.

Risk of delay

By delaying action on climate change, and continuing to produce emissions at the current rate, we are very likely to over-shoot the level of atmospheric carbon and the global temperature limits that we are aiming for.

Overshooting may also impact the ability of our forests and other ecosystems to store the necessary carbon that they are currently able to, resulting in feedback loops of worsening and worsening climate change. The IPCC report has been criticised for not including these ‘tipping points’ in their models.

Already, last year, studies have found that forests are producing more emissions than they are able to remove from the atmosphere — due to the high rates of deforestation and degradation. The IPCC report shows that the 2-degree option has significantly more impacts than the 1.5, including the loss of more vulnerable ecosystems and greater number of species extinctions.

Action is needed now

We don’t need new technologies; we need to protect what we have. With the added benefit that we will protect the biodiversity of these habitats, contributing to the global biodiversity targets, and the other services that they provide.

The private sector needs to be involved in delivering this solution. Since most of tropical deforestation continues to be caused by expansion of agricultural commodity production, those supply chains remain a key lever to protect the forests we rely on.

Companies need to commit to ambitious action on deforestation in their supply chains, and implement these commitments throughout their supply chains, whilst encouraging peers and competitors to join them in acting on this issue. From the annual assessment of the largest companies in deforestation-risk supply chains by Forest 500, it is clear that companies are not acting fast enough on all of the deforestation they are exposed to.

And as we near the 2020 deadline that the leading companies have set themselves, the clearest message is that we have to start now. As Mette Wilkie said: “We have the knowledge and the tools. Now we need to act.”