In August, the IPCC Land report reminded us of the outsized contribution forests can make in addressing climate change. Yet this month’s update report on the New York Declaration on Forests shows a dismaying lack of progress towards securing this contribution.
While deep-rooted governance challenges constrain progress towards the forest conservation targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), much of the slow progress also traces back to the lack of finance at the scale required to address these challenges. Meanwhile, money pours into trade-driven sectors like agriculture and mining that pose great risks to forests.
Restoring degraded land and putting the brakes on clearance at deforestation fronts are, of course, critical forest solutions. However, we need to give equal weight to a third piece of the puzzle – maintaining the integrity of the largest intact forest blocks – the heart of the Amazon, the Congo Basin, New Guinea and the great boreal forests of Canada, the US and Russia. Outright deforestation is largely confined to their edges, but their cores face many forms of degradation such as heavy logging or overhunting of mammals and birds critical to forest ecology. These may be hard to observe from above the canopy but erode carbon stores on a vast scale, harm biodiversity and Indigenous peoples and increase vulnerability to fires and drought. We need to care for these intact ecosystems as well as fight deforestation hotspots, in the same way that a medical system needs both emergency rooms and preventative health programs.
The global extent of large blocks of intact, primary forest has shrunk by more than 9% since 2000 and the rate of decline is accelerating. The fate of what remains depends on greater attention and finance for the broader forest agenda, and as well as rebalancing priorities within that agenda, to ensure that we act now to keep intact areas secure.
The coming year is a time of opportunity – the so-called ‘Super Year’ where the climate, biodiversity and sustainable development policy cycles coincide. 2020 is the first time since the Paris Agreement was signed that countries are due to up-grade their ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’, with new commitments to be announced at UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow in November, one month after the CBD agrees a new ten-year strategic plan in Kunming. Many of the SDG indicators will also be updated in March. Can these three tracks, so obviously intertwined in the real world, build synergies, so they are pursued coherently across the different conventions? Will the super year achieve the necessary scale and urgency of action on forests, or will it fizzle? Will there be opportunities to raise the priority of intact forests and ecological integrity more broadly?
Inaction on forests mirrors inadequate ambition on climate change as a whole. But forests and other nature-based activities have been called the ‘forgotten” climate solution because they attract less than 3% of international public climate finance, despite offering over 30% of cost-effective mitigation achievable by 2030. Yet even within the trickle of climate finance finding its way into forests, most is directed at restoration or forest conservation in places rewarded for coming down from a high deforestation rate baseline. Intact forests are short-changed because carbon accounting frameworks are structured to deliver incentives in areas of rapid, obvious change, rather than preventative measures that secure areas for the long term, before they are opened up.
Actions to protect intact forests must fully engage forest peoples with rights over them, and governments (national and sub-national) with intact forests in their jurisdictions. To take the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as an example, measures to secure the area’s vast forests need to involve communities in managing a continuous mosaic of community forests and protected areas as well as promoting policies that direct roads, mines and other economic activities to places with low conservation value. The international community can help by mobilizing significant, sustained climate finance towards such a strategy, which would secure very large carbon stores and sinks.
Similar opportunities to protect large standing forests, rather than wait until they become deforestation fronts, can be mapped out for all of the major intact forest regions of the world, tropical, temperate and boreal. The key is to create incentives for action before the emergency, by resetting policy signals and mobilizing support to choices that will secure, not squander, precious intact forests.
The public, private and philanthropic sectors are all needed to pull towards this. Foundations might like to think about how they can support the experimentation, capacity- and consensus-building necessary to lower the barriers before larger-scale investments can flow to ambitious new concepts, and how to help put the enabling conditions in place, including political and public support.
Tom Evans is Forest and Climate lead for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Rod Taylor is Forests lead for the World Resources Institute. WCS and WRI recently launched the Forests for Life Partnership, aimed at securing the integrity of the world’s last great forests, alongside UNDP, Rainforest Foundation Norway and Global Wildlife Conservation.