Forests: the Cinderella of climate solutions

Forests absorb carbon, regulate the water cycle and provide income to locals—but continues to be underappreciated for its role in battling climate change. WRI’s Frances Seymour explains why forests should be the darling of climate action.

Earth Day provides a timely opportunity to reflect on all the things that forests do for us—not least helping to stabilise the climate—and how little we seem to appreciate them.  Last November at “Forests Day” held on the sidelines of the UN climate negotiations in Bonn, Giacomo Grassi, a scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre who studies forests and climate change, offered the perfect metaphor for this problem: forests as Cinderella. 

As you will recall from the fairy tale, Cinderella is the poorly treated housekeeper in a home shared with an evil stepmother and two stepsisters. As implied by her name, Cinderella’s job in the household included cleaning the ashes from the fireplace—exactly the role that forests play for Earth by absorbing the carbon emissions released to the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. In light of slow progress realising industrial processes for pulling carbon out of the air—despite substantial attention and investment—it’s important to remember that forests are the only safe, natural, cost-effective and proven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology currently available.

But cleaning the hearth wasn’t Cinderella’s only job; she also had to draw water from the well, gather food and fuel, and perform many other duties to keep the household functioning. Forests do the same for the earth, delivering fresh, clean water from local watersheds for drinking, irrigation and hydropower generation, as well as helping generate rainfall at continental scales. In addition to providing, on average, more than one-fifth of local incomes from products gathered from the wild, forests are increasingly understood to play a crucial role in the global hydrological and energy cycles necessary to sustain agricultural production, above and beyond their role in the global carbon cycle. 

To continue to elaborate the metaphor, Prince Charming is global climate action, and in Giacomo’s telling, the ball is the Paris Agreement. In the same way that the prince was in search of a bride, countries are looking for partners to help them achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals. Forests were enshrined in Article 5 of the Agreement—the only sector to get this special treatment. Likewise, Cinderella attended the ball, danced with the prince, and convinced him that she was the one. 

And who are the stepsisters? Perhaps they are the other sectors, who are understandably seeking the attentions of Prince Charming for themselves. The energy and transport sectors, for example, sometimes appear to see themselves as the only worthy suitors for efforts to reduce emissions. (I’ve been disappointed to learn how few city climate commitments look beyond those two sectors to include actions related to urban trees, much less nearby or faraway forests.)  Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, colleagues in the agriculture sector were green with envy  when attention and funding were first lavished on the idea of forests as a solution to climate change a decade ago.  

It’s important to remember that forests are the only safe, natural, cost-effective and proven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology currently available.

But so far, the partnership between global climate action and forests has proven elusive. In the same way that Cinderella left behind her glass slipper at the ball, action on forests has been hobbled by missing finance: the failure of rich countries to follow through with a guarantee of significant, performance-based payments to developing countries as a reward for their success in reducing deforestation and forest degradation (known as “REDD+”).  (See the Earth Day website for a succinct articulation of the problem and the opportunity.)  Of course, finance is not the only thing that’s missing in efforts to protect forests.  Recognising indigenous rights, enhancing law enforcement, and mustering the political will to challenge vested interests in deforestation-as-usual all need to be part of the solution. 

The juxtaposition of three recent assessments shows just how difficult it has proven for Prince Charming to track down Cinderella after the ball:

  • An assessment by Griscom et al estimates that emission reductions from “natural climate solutions” overall—of which conserving forests are the most cost effective—constitute 37 per cent of the emission reduction actions needed by 2030 to reach the Paris goal of keeping global warming below 2°C (3.6°F). 
  • Yet an assessment led by Charlotte Streck et al on progress toward the goals of the New York Declaration on Forests found that just over 1 percent of mitigation finance to relevant countries currently goes to forests.
  • And in the meantime, an assessment by Global Forest Watch and the University of Maryland of global tree cover loss in 2016 reported a spike of 51 per cent over the previous year, with record-high levels of tree cover loss in Brazil and Indonesia. 

Last but not least, who is the fairy godmother in this metaphor? As you recall, the fairy godmother gave Cinderella both the physical vehicle to get to the ball (a carriage crafted from a pumpkin, with white mice transformed into horses to pull it), as well as the confidence to feel that she deserved to attend. In the Rogers and Hammerstein musical-for-television version of the Cinderella story, the fairy godmother sings the following lyrics to Cinderella in the song “Impossible”: 

  • Impossible!  For a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden carriage

  • Impossible!  For a plain country bumpkin to join with a prince in marriage….

  • …Impossible! Things are happening every day.

…concluding that outlandish transitions are indeed possible, and encouraging Cinderella to imagine herself worthy of the Prince. (My rendition of these lines delivered last year in Bonn can be found here.)

If there’s ever a remake of the musical, I want to try out for the role of the fairy godmother. In real life, I see it as my mission to advocate for forests in Climate World (Prince Charming), as well as to build the confidence of colleagues in Forests World (Cinderella) that such a marriage is indeed possible.

And if we’re successful, we’ll all live happily ever after.

Frances Seymour is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at WRI. This post is republished from the WRI blog.

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