Three ways tropical forests can save us from climate breakdown

Image courtesy of Marc Wieland via Unsplash.

Alex Morrice

Late last year a major tipping point was reached. It attracted little attention at the time, but is fundamental to the future climate stability of our planet. Tropical forests now emit more carbon than they store, as emissions from deforestation and degradation now exceed the amount of carbon tropical forests can absorb and lock up out of the atmosphere. This is particularly significant because tropical forests offer an extraordinary opportunity to meet our climate targets and avoid a collapse of the global climate system. There are three dimensions to how they can do this:

  1. A potential net emissions reduction of 30%

At present, 16–19% of gross carbon emissions come from deforestation and degradation of tropical forests, offset by the 8–11% currently removed from the atmosphere by new tropical forest growth. If we ended deforestation and degradation as well as encouraging new growth to continue, 30% of the reductions needed would be reached. This is more than immediately removing every single car, ship, or aeroplane, and the carbon dioxide they spew out, from our global transport system. But we must act now. Emissions from land use and forestry must peak by 2020 and become carbon neutral by 2040–50.

  1. A low cost opportunity for reductions

The cost of a ton of carbon under the European Emissions Trading System is expected to be approximately £15 throughout 2018. From 2004–2014, Brazil achieved significant emissions reductions through reducing deforestation in the Amazon at cost estimated to be around £2.42/ton. Looking forwards, the book Why Forests? Why Now?estimates that the cost of reducing emissions of any given amount through avoided deforestation in tropical nations would be less than a quarter of the cost of reducing the same amount in the industrial sectors of the USA or the EU. This means investment in protecting tropical forests is an opportunity to mitigate global climate change at low cost.

  1. Working within an existing framework

For every $100 spent on climate change mitigation, forests receive $1. Forests deserve more of these funds. The potential return on investment is greater than any other mitigation investment. Global Canopy has consistently argued that tropical forest finance is a largely untapped opportunity to help end climate change. One mechanism to achieve this is REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), where countries receive payments to keep forests standing, and the carbon emission savings from this avoided deforestation are offset against the commitments of the paying country.

This can offer a means to offset emissions at low cost and where other approaches cannot make a sufficient difference, as with the aviation sector, where fuel efficiency alone will not be enough. However, this is not the only form of forest-friendly finance. Investment in forest-friendly agricultural practices are another, with recent Global Canopy research highlighting that sustainable finance for smallholders can dramatically cut deforestation.

The benefits of tropical forests are wide-ranging, and we rightly talk about livelihoods, biodiversity, clean air and water and protection from natural disasters as key reasons to protect tropical forests. However, it should be remembered that even if we did not have these additional benefits, tropical forests would be essential for their contribution to mitigating climate change alone. Find out more about how we rely on tropical forests at, or get in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook.

This blog is the fourth instalment of a weekly five-part series on why we rely on tropical forests, focusing on the climate. Previous pieces have covered their importance for finance, biodiversity and public health.