To save forests, think beyond the trees

Para salvar los bosques, hay que mirar más allá de los árboles. Fotografía: Nadège Mazars/Banco Mundial. Para salvar los bosques, hay que mirar más allá de los árboles. Fotografía: Nadège Mazars/Banco Mundial.

If you skim the headlines, you get the impression that the role of forests in mitigating climate change has virtually unanimous global recognition and support. From the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, global leaders seem to agree that we won’t be able to end poverty and reduce planet-altering greenhouse gas emissions without forests.

But forests around the world are still under significant threat. Increasing demands for fuel, housing, and nourishment drive large-scale changes in land use at the cost of forest and tree cover. Some studies estimate that 27 percent of all forest loss—about 50,000 square kilometers per year—is caused by commodity-driven deforestation. That’s an area about the size of Costa Rica.

While this land-use change might help livelihoods and economies in the short term, we know none of this is helping in the fight against climate change. Deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change after burning fossil fuels and accounts for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.  If we stand a chance of achieving the Paris Agreement’s targets, unsustainable levels of deforestation need to be addressed.

To that end, efforts to incentivize countries to reduce their emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (commonly referred to as REDD+, and included in the Paris Agreement), have made some inroads. The REDD+ mechanism aims to make forests more valuable standing than they would be cut down by placing a value on the carbon they store. Under REDD+ programs, countries receive results-based payments for verifiable emission reductions measured against a predetermined baseline.

After 10 years of working with the concept, REDD+ has indeed helped to catalyze climate-smart transformation of the forest sector. But the last decade has also shown us that we need to start broadening our thinking about forest protection and emissions reductions, because we can’t save forests if all we think about is saving trees. To save forests, we have to understand what is driving communities and countries to clear them, and propose land use alternatives that are both economically viable and environmentally sustainable.


Forest Protection Needs a Broader Landscape Approach

The Catch-22 of agricultural expansion is that it is both a leading driver of deforestation globally and a key tool for reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity. Growth in the agricultural sector can be up to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors. 

However, studies show that agriculture is responsible for roughly 80 percent of tropical deforestation, making it a leading source of anthropogenic methane and nitrous oxide emissions worldwide (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Local and commercial agriculture are responsible for up to 80 percent of all deforestation across the developing world.
Figure 1: Local and commercial agriculture are responsible for up to 80 percent of all deforestation across the developing world.

Sources: FAO, 2010 (continental-level estimations of deforestation drivers as reported by 46 countries) and Lexeme Consulting, 2012 (drivers of deforestation and forest degradation)

Building on momentum at both the national and international levels, climate-smart land-use approaches applied across competing land-use sectors (i.e., agriculture, forestry, among others) are increasing food production and income, while offering opportunities for climate resilience, emission reductions, more sustainable water use, and carbon sequestration.


The BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes

These kinds of climate-smart initiatives and results are the entry point for the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL), launched in 2013. The ISFL is a multilateral facility that rewards countries for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a cross-cutting approach to sustainable land use management, including REDD+, climate-smart agriculture, and smarter land-use planning and policies. In Zambia, for example, the ISFL program is helping to establish 239 farmer field schools that are training more than 10,700 farmers on climate-smart agricultural practices that boost yields and help conserve forests.

Scaling up these kinds of initiatives across entire jurisdictions will require all hands on deck, as the public sector, donors and programs such as the ISFL alone can’t finance all the work that is needed. A critical piece in achieving low-carbon rural economies is to drive the sustainability of the private sector to make a real impact on the ground.

In Colombia, for example, the ISFL program has partnered with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Alquería—one of the main dairy processors in Colombia—to enhance sustainable dairy production. And in Mexico, ISFL is leveraging a $56 million loan from the World Bank to promote forest entrepreneurship and sustainable forest management.


Thinking Beyond REDD+ to Achieve REDD+

No one can deny that over the past 10 years REDD+ has catalyzed a range of new forest conservations, such as carbon sinks, forest tenure, and increasing stakeholder engagement in forest management. But to achieve what REDD+ set out to do 10 years ago, the time has come to think about how we can now push REDD+ to deliver emission reductions on a larger scale.

The only way to do this is to understand the underlying drivers of land-use change across competing sectors. If we can figure out how to address these challenges across large jurisdictions, and then pilot effective landscape approaches around the world, we will be in a much better position to achieve many of the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals the future of our planet is riding on.


This post was originally published on Brookings Future Development.



Roy Parizat

Fund Manager, BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes, World Bank

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