Anyone who argues against trees being our best defense against global warming is either detached from reality or has never sat under a tree.
Trees are undervalued assets in meeting the twin global challenges of our time: achieving prosperity and safeguarding climate stability. It’s time we gave them the attention – and finance – that they deserve.
Pledges like the Paris Agreement are welcome, but they are not yet sufficient to avert catastrophic global warming. Tropical forests provide an opportunity to close the gap.
For many forest-rich developing countries, like the Philippines, deforestation, not fossil fuel use, is the major source of emissions. greenhouse gas emissions. So halting deforestation would be a giant step toward taming climate change.
That’s not all. Standing forests soak up carbon into vegetation and soil, providing a safe and natural Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology. If we were to stop tropical deforestation tomorrow, allow damaged forests to grow back, and protect mature forests, the resulting reduction in emissions and removal of carbon from the atmosphere could equal up to one-third of current global emissions from all sources.
The good news is that climate negotiators have already agreed on a way to make this happen. It’s called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation or REDD+, in which rich countries reward developing countries for reducing deforestation on a pay-for-performance basis. Many developing countries have indicated that they would be willing to reduce emissions further in return for international financial support. Rich countries could do more to fight climate change at lower cost by financing tropical forest conservation in addition to their own domestic emission cuts.
In addition to mitigating the emissions that cause climate change, conserving tropical forests contributes to development in myriad ways. New science suggests that forests support agriculture by regulating weather at continental scales, in addition to the shade, forage, and pollination they provide to adjacent farms. This means that deforestation of the Amazon rainforest threatens to deny rainfall to faraway crops in Brazil’s agricultural heartland.
Forested watersheds fill reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams and extend their lives by controlling erosion, ensuring that millions of people have access to modern energy. And all these services are in addition to the harvest of timber and non-timber forest products such as charcoal, which provide, on average, one-fifth of household incomes in communities that live in and around forests.
Moreover, poor countries and poor people in those countries will be the biggest losers from climate change. A single tropical storm, such as Typhoon Haiyan that slammed into the Philippines two years ago, can knock a country off its economic growth path for decades. And the poorest households, whose health, livelihoods, and housing are already precarious, have the fewest resources to adapt to change or recover from natural disasters.
Intact forests are more resistant to the impacts of extreme weather events, such as the landslides that follow heavy rains and the forest fires that follow dry spells in Indonesia.
Maintaining the flows of goods and services from forests is critical to buffering the impacts of climate instability on those least able to withstand them.
Rich countries should think about paying for forest services as a utility. We are willing to pay electric bills in return for keeping the lights on; we should be willing to pay for tropical forest conservation as one way to ensure climate stability, while also promoting development benefits.