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Forests and Climate

Protecting the world’s remaining natural forests is crucial to global efforts to curb climate change and tackling illegal deforestation is among the most important steps we can take to achieve that

Forests, Climate Change, and Illegal Timber Trade

In addition to the many functions forests fulfill for local populations and for humankind globally, they are also crucial for the world’s climate. Deforestation and forest degradation not only releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, it also dramatically reduces the capacity of ecosystems to adapt to climate change. Healthy natural forests store vast amounts of carbon and are the most resilient to climate change and other disturbances. Scientists agree about the need to both drastically reduce CO2 emissions and protect the world’s forests in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The role of international demand in driving deforestation

While some of the dynamics that drive forest loss must be resolved at a national level, deforestation worldwide is increasingly driven by the uncontrolled demand for commodities and forest products in international markets. In order to tackle deforestation effectively, consumer countries need to take action to reduce the demand for food, fuel, and fiber that cause deforestation and send market signals that incentivize legal and forest-conserving production and trade.

The rate of illegal logging is particularly high—between 50 and 90 percent—in countries and regions with high rates of deforestation such as Brazil, the Congo Basin, and Indonesia. Cutting the demand for illegal forest products can be an effective tool against destructive and unregulated forest loss.

A July 2010 study by Chatham House found that illegal logging had dropped by approximately 25% globally in the past decade. This significant reduction is attributed to a combination of improved governance and enforcement in key producer countries such as Indonesia, Brazil, and Cameroon, as well as transformative market signals sent by demand-side policies and measures such as the U.S. Lacey Act and the EU’s Timber Regulation. The report also estimates that the reduction in illegal logging saved 17 million hectares from deforestation and forest degradation since 2002, totaling between an estimated 1.2 billion and 14.6 billion metric tonnes of avoided carbon emissions.

Not only does illegal logging accelerate climate change through direct forest loss and degradation, it also frequently acts as a precursor to further deforestation by opening up once inaccessible intact forests through logging roads. Forest degradation, caused by selective logging or nearby clearance, has received less attention to date, but it undermines resilience to change of intact natural ecosystems—a particularly important consideration as the impacts of climate change itself begin to bear down on natural ecosystems more harshly in many places around the world. Intact ecosystems are much more resilient to change than degraded ones.

REDD+: Throwing money at the problem is not enough

The international community has created a mechanism to incentivize forest protection called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which is supported by the United Nations, the World Bank, and other initiatives, including through national governments and bilateral agreements.

The 2010 UNFCCC Cancun Agreement on REDD+ “[e]ncourage[d] all Parties to find effective ways to reduce the human pressure on forests that results in greenhouse gas emissions, including actions to address drivers of deforestation.”

The aim is to mobilize financial resources, largely from developed countries, to prevent deforestation in the tropics. The goal of REDD+ funding for forested countries is to shift government policies and industry practice towards the protection and sustainable management of forests that would otherwise be destroyed for short term economic gain. A number of institutions and national governments have pledged billions of dollars to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation.

While financial incentives for forest protection are important, they will only yield lasting results if combined with strong measures to strengthen governance, law enforcement, and transparency. Without robust forest governance mechanisms, even the best forest policies can be undermined by the lack of political will for implementation and enforcement, as well as corruption. Both political and financial support for the rule of law in the forest sector, by prioritizing the fight against forest crime such as illegal logging and timber trafficking, is thus indispensable to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation.

The World Bank’s Carbon Fund: Part of the solution or exacerbating the problem?

One of the first initiatives to support and implement REDD+ initiatives in different countries has been the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF). The FCPF is administered by the World Bank and financed by a group of donor countries, including the United States, Germany, the support supporting the Carbon Fund as private sector members. Created in 2008, the FCPF is composed of a “Readiness Fund” and a “Carbon Fund.” The Readiness Fund is meant to support forest countries in creating the necessary framework conditions to implement REDD+ programs, which should include forest policy reforms, monitoring systems, as well as ensuring that relevant land and forest rights holders are included in decision-making. The Carbon Fund is intended to pilot systems to pay countries for their performance in reducing emissions, meaning in effectively protecting their forests, thereby generating ‘carbon credits’ in the form of monetary compensation.

Many questions remain about the scheme:

  • At what point is a country “ready” for REDD+?

  • Who has rights to the carbon stored in the forests and subsequently reaps the benefits of carbon credits?

  • How to ensure that the scheme does not lead to a new form of land grab whereby local communities are being marginalized and impoverished, while private companies and often corrupt central governments cash in on the benefits?

  • How to ensure that FCPF programs actually result in additional reduced emissions, rather than just produce “hot air” and result in a waste of scarce financial resources to address climate change?

Being one of the first and the most developed REDD+ mechanisms, the FCPF is setting an important precedent REDD+ implementation globally, for better or worse. Together with international partners, EIA has engaged in the FCPF process to ensure the establishment of a minimum of accountability in the process, and continues to monitor the development of REDD+ programs in important forest countries.

Forest carbon savings cannot offset fossil fuel emissions

It is imperative that forest protection measures are taken in addition to reducing fossil fuel emissions, rather than being considered an “offset” for emissions in other sectors, like fossil fuels, as some carbon market proponents have suggested. Carbon from fossil fuels is not interchangeable with carbon stored in Forests. Burning fossil fuel instantly releases additional CO2 into the atmosphere. Forests, however, take up CO2 very slowly, it takes decades to centuries, and even then only a portion of fossil emissions can be absorbed.

Fossil carbon left in the ground can lead to permanent emissions reductions. Forests carbon stocks, however, are more vulnerable to reversals, meaning forests can eventually be degraded or destroyed by different means, including through the impacts of climate change itself.

Reducing emissions from industrial, fossil fuel-intensive processes can therefore be considered permanent, while land sector sequestration of emissions in forests and soils is only temporary. Carbon ‘savings’ from forests and other land use can therefor not be used to “offset” the continued use of fossil fuels.

Most importantly, protecting forests while continuing fossil fuel emissions would not decrease the overall active carbon pool in the atmosphere. Dangerous climate change can only be mitigated if fossil fuels are left in the ground and natural forests are left standing.

Further, in order for REDD+ to work, a number of safeguards must be observed that ensure the rights and access to land for local communities and indigenous peoples, and prevent the “leakage” of emissions from one forest area to another.