For forests to combat climate change, 3 things we must do

© Trond Larsen

A version of this post was originally published on Mongabay.

All but the most cynical would agree that the long-awaited global climate change agreement reached at last month’s U.N. climate talks in Paris was an important step forward.

As countries spend the next five years refining their goals and creating specific plans of action before the agreement goes into effect in 2020, I hope they’ll adequately consider a climate change solution that the world has historically undervalued and oversimplified: forest protection.

The cutting and burning of tropical forests in places like Indonesia and Brazil releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Thanks in part to initiatives like REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which aim to compensate countries for keeping their forests standing, more people are beginning to realize their value. Conserving tropical forests is a cost-effective and essential part of the solution, along with key climate strategies such as improving energy efficiency and scaling-up renewable energy sources. In addition, protecting and restoring forests brings a host of other benefits, from providing drinking water for nearby cities to subsistence for indigenous peoples whose lives revolve around the forest.

Those of us representing CI at the Paris meeting, also known as COP 21, discussed the importance of this issue with many of our colleagues in tropical countries, who were excited about the potential for future REDD+ deals as well as the opportunities presented by the new Green Climate Fund, which has significant potential to contribute to forest conservation and other nature-based climate solutions.

The inclusion of REDD+ language in the final Paris Agreement was a victory for forests, as my colleague Steve Panfil outlined in this blog post. That said, I still don’t think the value of tropical forests in tackling climate change received the full attention it deserved in Paris — especially given a groundbreaking paper that came out just as COP 21 began.

The article, published in the journal Nature Climate Change proposed that protecting and restoring tropical forests could be as much as 50% of the climate change solution — a percentage even higher than we thought.

Further reading

Previously, many conservationists have been using the rough estimate that tropical forests could represent as much as 30% of the possible solution to the climate challenge. In this paper, which has still received relatively little attention, the authors took into consideration both how avoiding the destruction of forests would prevent emissions (currently estimated to account for as much as 11% of all greenhouse gases) as well as expand their ability to sequester and store the carbon emissions that can’t be eliminated.

After spending more than 40 years studying primates and reptiles in some of the Earth’s most unique, remote rainforests, the suggestion that forests may be even more valuable that we thought is no surprise to me — but fighting climate change with forests isn’t as simple as planting a bunch of trees.

These places are complex. Each ecosystem functions like a giant machine made up of many intricate moving parts. And although much about forests remains a mystery, with every new study, the scientific community comes closer to understanding how the machine works.

As more countries, companies and communities start focusing on using forest protection as a climate solution, here are three ways we can maximize forests’ full capacity to fight climate change:

  1. Protect the largest trees.

A recent study shows that at least in Amazonian forests, 1% of forest trees sequester 50% of the carbon. The tall branches emerging from the canopy above these big, seeded, slow-growing hardwood trees are absolutely essential to maintain healthy tropical forest systems and high level of carbon capture.

The importance of protecting these kinds of trees indicates that certain types of forests are more valuable for carbon storage than others. For example, forests in Suriname and Guyana have higher carbon capacity than most other Amazonian forests because they’re primary forest — they’ve never been cut down, so they’ve had time to grow.

  1. Prevent overhunting of the animals that keep forests functioning.

In Amazonia, species like spider monkeys, toucans, curassows and even forest tortoises play a critical role in maintaining forest growth, ingesting fruits from hardwood trees and depositing their seeds as they move through the forest. Some seeds won’t even germinate unless they have passed through the digestive tracts of these frugivores.

Unfortunately, these animals are usually the first things to be hunted — and when they disappear, the whole structure of the forest changes. In fact, many of these tropical forests, even those that look healthy from above, are in fact suffering from “empty forest syndrome,” meaning that most animals larger than a rat have already been hunted out.

This situation isn’t unique to South America. In the northeastern United States, for example, the reduction of predators such as wolves and coyotes has led to an explosion of the deer population. Those deer eat many of the seedlings of the trees that help constitute a diverse forest.

It’s not just a matter of fencing off a block of forest and saying, “Great, we’ve sequestered the carbon.” If we want to chart this over the course of many generations, we must also protect those seed dispersers that maintain the high level of capacity in those forests.

  1. Protect and restore forests on the edge of protected areas.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of forest restoration, efforts should focus on the areas next to existing intact forest. It’s easier to expand an existing forest than to build one from scratch. This will ensure that the species that live in the original forest can easily move into the new one. If you just plant 50 or 100 trees anywhere, it’s good, but it doesn’t have the same benefit.

Although we are still gathering information, what is true of these Amazonian forests is also likely true of the great forests of Central and West Africa, southeast Asian and New Guinea — and they are disappearing fast. If the global community does not continue to set aside protected areas and indigenous reserves — as Conservation International has supported to the tune of 728 million hectares (1.8 billion acres) of land and sea — we will lose.

Several visionary governments, such as Norway, have already invested billions in countries including Brazil, Indonesia, Guyana, Peru and Liberia, recognizing that protecting their forests has a global benefit. Public-private alliances, such as a Sustainable Landscapes Partnership involving Disney, USAID, and Conservation International in Peru, are demonstrating the multiple benefits of forest conservation in and around core protected areas. If we are going to combat climate change at the scale necessary, conservation and full-scale restoration of tropical forests must be seen as a top global priority — and funded accordingly.

Russ Mittermeier was president of Conservation International for 25 years and currently serves as its executive vice chair. He also chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group.

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