August 12, 2022

Forests are among the world’s best bets for carbon capture. But according to this year’s State of the World’s Forests report from the United Nations, forests are also the foundation of green and equitable economies, sustainable resource management, and biodiversity preservation and are generally key to a brighter future.

This latest report highlights how much forests are undervalued in economic analyses and re-emphasizes a three-pronged approach: preserve existing forests, restore degraded lands and expand agroforestry (the integration of trees and shrubs into agriculture), and sustainably use forest products. These actions need upfront financing, but the amount needed is modest compared to other government spending. And the return on investment—in terms of avoiding climate calamity and building a more equitable and sustainable economy—would be significant.

“Governments are estimated to spend $1.8 trillion a year in military expenditures and more than $5 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies, but only about $50 billion on landscape restoration,” said Robert Nasi, the managing director of The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in CIFOR-ICRAF’s media release about the report. “It’s time for society to rethink our priorities to enable a better future.”

Climate potential

Increases in extreme weather and other climate-change impacts will be expensive, as will counting on future carbon-capture technologies to reverse climate trends later this century. By contrast, halting deforestation is a cost-effective solution that is available now. It’s also among the bigger opportunities to reach climate goals. The UN report projects that preserving existing forests would cover up to 14 percent of the carbon dioxide-equivalent (GtCO2e) emission cuts needed by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5° C. Restoration and agroforestry could contribute up to another five percent.

But there has been little to no progress on this front in recent years. Last fall, 141 countries signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, pledging to end forest loss by 2030. Despite this, forest cover loss—largely of tropical forests—in 2021 was significant enough as to already put that goal potentially out of reach.

“The capacity of tropical countries to address forest conservation may have been undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Manuel Guariguata, a principal scientist for CIFOR-ICRAF and lead for Peru, in the CIFOR-ICRAF’s media release. “During 2020, the total area deforested across the global tropics doubled with respect to pre-COVID-19 values the year before. Shutdowns and public health concerns pushed the political priorities away from forests and trees.”

Better incentives

The report found that agriculture drove nearly 90 percent of recent deforestation, illustrating the urgent need to find effective incentives for local communities to maintain and sustainably use forests.

More than half of the world’s population (an estimated 4.17 billion) lives within 5 kilometers of a forest and up to 5.76 billion people depend on non-timber forest resources such as plants, plant products, and animals for making a living. These communities, as well as Indigenous people, either own or manage close to half of forests and adjacent farms, but they receive less than 2 percent of climate funding.

“In general, it’s not the technical solutions we are missing, but the set of incentives currently in place,” said Paolo Cerutti, CIFOR-ICRAF senior scientist and lead for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC), in the CIFOR-ICRAF media release. “In countries that are extremely poor, like the DRC, the question remains: ‘How do you ensure incentives, including financial ones, trickle down to the smallholder farmers so they can reduce the environmental impact from activities that they need to conduct for their basic survival, like cutting down trees for fuelwood?’”

Many analyses show that restoration and conservation return far more than they cost, but these approaches need funding, public support, and increased awareness. To this end, the report noted that there are more than 8.5 million social cooperation groups advocating for forest communities’ rights, providing support for ending deforestation, promoting sustainable use, and working toward improved policies.

Sustainable and equitable economies

Some of the most prominent strategies include finding better uses for agricultural subsidies, 86 percent of which go to activities that are harmful to the environment—particularly biodiversity. Agroforestry is a promising alternative that can preserve up to 80 percent of forest biodiversity while increasing crop productivity. However, these gains typically take several years to realize, during which farmers would need additional support.

On the sustainable product front, there has also been increasing demand for wood products. With adequate forest management, these have significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions across their entire life cycles than plastics or other common materials. In one example, research showed that wood-based textiles (based on cellulose) could cut the emissions of textile manufacturing by close to two-thirds. The report projects that demand for such products will grow 3.3 percent per year in the next decade, with an estimated value of $5 trillion.

This shift away from deforestation and toward sustainable use of forests offers substantial environmental benefits and financial opportunities for society. The report calculates that tripling current spending by 2030 would be enough to meet these goals—but action is needed now.

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