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

© Trond Larsen

Illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Bolivia. The cutting and burning of tropical rainforest releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. (© 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.
© Pete Oxford/iLCP

South American yellow-footed tortoise in Guyana. Tortoises are one of the many animals critical to forest growth due to their role as seed dispersers. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

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.

© Pete Oxford/iLCP

Aerial view of protected rainforest in Iwokrama Reserve, Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

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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  1. Abegail Ara Loren says

    God made the earth as the most beautiful planet because it is where a lot of species live and produce in order to survive. We are blessed to have a comfortable home where we can breathe fresh air. But as time passes by, people learned how to destroy it and then suddenly advance technology took place that is why the attention of human beings for our environment are lessen. Because of this deforestation, landslides and floods are the primary negative effects of it. Many lives were taken because from this. We all know how trees are important to all of us so if we knew how to take care of forests, we will help to lessen any calamities that may occur in the future time. Yes, planting trees are cliché but if you plant one, you will be able to produce oxygen for the human and carbon dioxide for the plants. One deed can change one nation. We should know how to take care our mother Earth because it isn’t owned by us nor by anybody but God. We should appreciate this because once we took care of it, you will put a big smile on God’s face in heaven. 😉😊💕

  2. jerwin lanting says

    We all know that global warming / climate change is a very significant topic nowadays. We shall be concerned in protecting and saving our Mother Nature due to its continuous and inevitable effects in our lives like Typhoon, Landslide, Earthquake etc. If we could stop those illegal activities like deforestation, illegal logging, dynamite fishing etc., we might save our nature. As we all know we, the people are one of the reasons of climate change but we could change it for the better. We can help our mother nature restore to its natural way by conserving and protecting it like conserve water and energy, protecting wildlife and natural resources. We can do save our one and only Earth if we start it right now.

  3. Yvette Angela A Damian says

    Because so many systems are tied to climate, a change in climate can affect many related aspects of where and how people, plants and animals live, such as food production, availability and use of water, and health risks. Our state and societies around the globe need to reduce pollution to avoid worsening climate impacts and reduce the risk of creating changes beyond our ability to respond and adapt. Thoughtful people can care about the environment and at the same time see the need to exploit or use nature for resources to satisfy the needs of our species. We need to protect our forests, they produce most of our oxygen, regulate our climate and do lots of other things necessary to us. If they are destroyed billions of living beings will die. Our forests are given by God to us to take care of it and to protect it. Therefore, as a human being it is our responsibility to take good care of it. ^_^

  4. Edward William A. Ramos says

    The Philippines, like many of the world’s poor countries, will be among the most vulnerable
    to the impacts of climate change because of its limited resources. As shown by previous studies,
    occurrences of extreme climatic events like droughts and floods have serious negative implications for major water reservoirs in the country. Climate Change is also the most controversial topics in the Philippines but also other countries in the part of the earth. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the key to solving global climate change. A major way these gases get into the atmosphere is when people burn coal, oil, and natural gas for energy. Everyone uses energy, and everyone can be part of the solution! But don’t forget that climate change is already happening.

  5. Karl Miguel O. Santos Seksi says

    Forests are heavily affected by climate change and one of the reasons behind climate change is technology and the essentials for it that are turned to waste,however even though technology has negative effects on the climate technology itself is making ways to prevent calamities and whatnot
    such as machines capable of cleaning the sea and polluted stuff and whatever but the point is technology isn’t the biggest factor that affects climate besides it also helps.
    That end my personal opinion about this. c:

  6. Tracer Lloyd Amores says

    It seems to me that humans have been programmed to think that they need to fulfill their every craving, their every desire and this is why global warming is getting worse. In our conditioning as human beings we have set up societies that rely on these superficial needs and our lifestyles are comprised of actions that continually destroy the very part of the natural world that we all need to stay alive.
    Sadly, our actions are at the expense of our own well-being and the planet and the other creatures we share it with. It is as if we are blind to our own destruction. It seems to me that human beings are hard-wired to be self-serving and lack much self-awareness. We as a species are selfish and short-sighted. We don’t think of the big picture. We always want more….bigger, better, more. We never seem satisfied with what we have. When we meet a desire, we only appreciate it for a little while and then move quickly on to the next craving to be fulfilled. It is as if our needs are endless, bottomless pits and our emptiness is never satisfied. These are attitudes that are as outdated as prehistoric times. They do not match where we find ourselves in our global climate crises. We must change what we think is important and therefore what we value. And in truth, this change must occur in not just one of us on this Earth but in all of the almost seven billion human beings who now inhabit our planet.

  7. Karl Miguel O. Santos Seksi says

    Forest are one of the earth’s defense against heat as our forest produces a shield from any kinds for the heat flood and everything that’s the reason why because without it a lot of Changes will occur and that’s unbearable and unacceptable. That’s why forests must be protected.

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