Forests—root of climate problem or solution?

Stopping deforestation and allowing damaged forests to grow back could reduce global emissions by up to 30 per cent.

Monkeys from the monkey forest in bali
Residents of the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud. Deforestation accounts for 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Rob DeGraff, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Evidence of a continuing decline in global forest cover and a yawning gap in the action needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions may appear to offer scant hope for efforts to halt planetary warming.

But efforts are gathering pace to turn two negatives into a positive—reversing these trends by connecting them.

UN Environment’s most recent stocktake of global climate action finds national pledges under the Paris Agreement reach only a third of required emission reductions to keep temperature rises to well under 2°C by 2030.

But while UN Environment highlights the dire consequences of untrammelled climate change, it leavens its warming with a sprinkle of climate hope in highlighting how moves to protect forests can play a major part in closing the “emissions gap”.

This hope is rooted in an aspiration for forests to become part of the climate solution, rather than act as net contributors to warming. This will require halting the speed of deforestation, which currently accounts for about 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions—more than from the world’s entire transport sector.

A major challenge lies in how to provide the financial incentives to create change on the ground. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is currently mapping the financial landscape to seek ways of encouraging a more joined-up approach to generating forest-based climate finance, says its forest and land use specialist, Juan Chang.

This includes exploring how to increase the crucial role of the private sector, he adds. Currently, private sector support in climate finance to protect forests is largely untapped, with the public sector contributing nearly 90 per cent of reported REDD+ finance.

REDD+ is shorthand for one of the climate finance world’s most unwieldy terminologies. It refers to the UN-supported accounting and funding mechanism that supports developing countries’ efforts to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, and (the plus) foster conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

A key feature of GCF is its mandate to tap the private sector to maximise the volume of financial support available to address climate change. GCF’s REDD+ results-based payments pilot programme, launched at the end of last year, may open new possibilities in bridging the payment gap for REDD+. 

It could do this by attracting private sector funds to leverage the potentially large cash reserves many companies have. GCF is also scoping how it can build on ongoing initiatives tapping the private sector. These include deforestation-free commodity supply chains and ongoing efforts by the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 and the New York Declaration on Forests.

While exploring the potential of the private sector, GCF’s current focus is on utilising public funds.

Its forest portfolio includes 10 approved projects, totalling $314 million, and includes two devoted to REDD+.

Building trust

There is certainly no time to lose as hopes to combat climate change by keeping forests standing face real and present threats, mostly driven by agriculture. Last year was the second-worst on record for the loss of tropical tree cover, according to new data from the University of Maryland released by the online platform Global Forest Watch. The affected area equalled the size of Bangladesh.

Frances Seymour, a well-known forestry expert at the World Resources Institute, says protecting forests is the most cost-effective strategy to achieve the Paris Agreement goal.

“Stopping deforestation and allowing damaged forests to grow back would be equivalent to reducing current global emissions from all sources by up to 30 per cent,” she adds.

Private sector support in climate finance to protect forests is largely untapped, with the public sector contributing nearly 90 per cent of reported REDD+ finance.

Finding ways to tackle the twin problems of deforestation and climate change together will require building trust across various levels of society.

Alberto Paniagua with the Peruvian Trust Fund for National Parks and Protected Areas (PROFONANPE) says engagement with indigenous people in a GCF-financed project in the Amazon rainforest region—across seven different cultures and languages—has been crucial in dispelling distrust of outsiders’ intent.

This $9.1 million project helps indigenous communities in the northern Peruvian province of Datem del Marañón manage their wetland resources in ways that avoid deforestation and the large-scale release of greenhouse gases stored in local peatlands.

Paniagua highlights the importance of keeping both local and global perspectives centre in finding ways to combat climate change and deforestation. “Essentially, we are all responsible for the Amazon as it is the planet’s lungs,” he adds. “All life depends on this ecosystem.”

Current stresses on the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, are a telling microcosm of global population growth and the search for new land to cultivate, which continue to put pressure on the planet’s remaining forests.

While the challenges in keeping forests standing are increasingly clear, so is the climate connection linking incentives that halt deforestation and address global warming. This may work in the favour of forests—and, ultimately, for the planet’s population which relies on them.

Simon Pollock is Communications Officer at the Green Climate Fund. This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

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