As we watch the world debate how best to address climate change, and as carbon emissions continue to soar, at least one climate strategy strikes me as a “no-brainer.” We should do everything we can to save the world’s forests.
There are many good reasons for protecting forests, from their intrinsic beauty to their ecologic and economic values. Tropical forests are storehouses of biodiversity, harboring more than one-half of the Earth’s known plants and animal species. And nearly 1 billion people worldwide directly depend on forest resources — fiber, fuel, food and clean water — for their livelihoods and well-being.
Forest destruction produces about 15 percent of the world’s manmade global carbon emissions — more carbon pollution than the entire global transportation sector. It is the primary source of emissions in two of the top five carbon-emitting countries: Brazil and Indonesia. Forests function as a natural air conditioner, pulling carbon from the atmosphere while cleaning and cooling our air. Yet each year more than 32 million acres of the world’s forests are destroyed — an area about the size of New York state.
The figures speak for themselves. When done right, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (known as “REDD+” in policymakers’ jargon) can be a triple win for nature, people and our world’s climate.
But REDD+ does have its critics. As head of The Nature Conservancy, it’s easy for me to explain why my organization wants to reduce deforestation. However, some question why we support another part of the REDD+ equation — improving forest management for the sustainable harvesting of wood. Why create incentives for cutting down trees?
Again, let’s turn to the numbers. Destructive logging practices, many of them illegal, are one of the most serious drivers of forest loss and resulting emissions. Research has shown that that transitioning from destructive logging to low-impact harvesting practices can reduce damage to forests and lower carbon emissions by 30-50% while delivering the same supply of timber. Simply put, better forestry can be good for our climate.
In addition, encouraging smart replanting where logging has already occurred is an important part of keeping forests viable in the long term — for local communities, forest-dwelling species and future generations.
Finally, we also recognize that forestry activities today sustain millions of jobs around the world and provide people with wood and paper products. Recycling and development of non-timber alternatives can — and should — reduce demand for these goods, but well-managed forests and plantations also play an important role. They can provide a reliable, sustainable supply of paper and wood while diverting pressure away from pristine lands that contain the highest amount of carbon and serve as homes for endangered species and indigenous communities. And many of the world’s best-quality forests are managed by indigenous communities, who tend their land in low-impact ways while relying on its bounty for their livelihoods.
“Well-managed” is the operative phrase. Robust and transparent standards, accounting rules and independent verification must protect against converting primary forests to plantations under REDD+ programs that allow for planting and managing forests for the sustainable harvesting of wood. In fact, the Cancun Agreements adopted by 194 countries at the December 2010 UN climate convention require that REDD+ actions be “consistent with the conservation of natural forests and biological diversity, ensuring that the actions … of this decision are not used for the conversion of natural forests.”
Based on our 60 years of experience conserving forests around the world, The Nature Conservancy is committed to demonstrating how REDD+ can work to provide benefits for forests, local people and the global climate. For example, in Indonesia, we are partnering with the government in the district of Berau to protect its tropical forest and reduce carbon pollution by two million tons annually — which is like removing roughly 400,000 cars from the road each year. In this 5 million-acre area, we are also boosting economic progress by providing guidance on smarter, more sustainable farming and logging techniques. And we’re doing on-the-ground research to understand how much carbon pollution we’re preventing from going into the atmosphere.
REDD+ alone will not solve the climate change challenge — we must urgently address carbon pollution from all sources. But REDD+ is a critical piece of the puzzle in addressing this global challenge, and it has the potential to be transformative in benefiting communities, ecosystems, biodiversity and the global climate.
Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy.
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