This year’s Earth Day was a momentous one, marked by the signing of the Paris Agreement, which aims to confine global temperature rise to below 2 deg C. With a theme of “Trees for the Earth”, the event also kicked off a global goal to plant 7.8 billion trees by 2020, underscoring the importance of forests in the global climate fight.
But just months before the landmark climate deal was finalised in France last December, raging forest fires in Southeast Asia added more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is a sober reminder that deforestation could undermine the global community’s efforts to curb climate change.
As Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources said in a statement at the United Nations summit in Paris: “Reducing emissions is not only about mitigating emissions from our industrial sectors; it can also be about protecting our forests”.
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Experts say that avoiding deforestation has multiple benefits beyond reducing emissions.
Nancy Harris, research manager, Global Forests Watch—an initiative by Washington-based non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI)—notes that “unlike the energy and transport sectors, forests can also actively sequester carbon dioxide”.
WRI data shows that deforestation currently accounts for about 10 per cent of annual emissions, almost as much as the total output of all cars and trucks on the planet. Protecting forests could eliminate these emissions entirely and reduce them by at least another 2 per cent through carbon sequestration.
Forests also provide ecosystem services such as protection from floods, clean air and water, medicinal plants, and are a sacred and cultural place for many people.
A perennial problem
Despite their value, forests have been shrinking since the 1990s, due to population pressures and growing demand for food, timber, and other agricultural commodities.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) last year found what while forests made up 31.6 per cent of global land area, or 4,128 million hectares in 1990, this figure stands at 3,999 million hectares today, or 30.6 per cent.
For much of the past decade, Brazil reigned as the country with the largest annual net loss of forest area, followed closely by Australia, Indonesia, and Nigeria. But by 2014, Indonesia had overtaken Brazil in forest losses, largely thanks to the rapid expansion of its palm oil, and pulp and paper industries.
Deforestation in Indonesia reached record levels last year, as unabated fires spread throughout the country’s peat forests. Peat is a swampy soil which is highly flammable when dry and stores up to 20 times more carbon than other mineral soils.
These fires—often started by smallholder farmers as a cheap way to clear land—gave off as much carbon dioxide as the annual emissions of Germany and Japan, and more daily emissions than the entire US economy, said analysts from VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands and WRI respectively.
“We don’t need to clear forests”
Rod Taylor, director of WWF’s Global Forest Programme, says that deforestation is entirely avoidable today, and its persistence “is fundamentally a problem of governance”.
Uncertainty around land rights and poor enforcement are among the lapses which allow deforestation to continue, he says.
Contrary to the belief that forest clearance is necessary to meet a growing demand for consumer products, WWF’s Living Forests Report published in 2011, says this can be supported without deforestation till 2030.
Following that, improvements to crop productivity and a shift to more sustainable consumption patterns such as reduced demand for meat will be necessary.
The industrial agriculture sector can also avoid deforestation by developing on degraded land instead of viable forests, but often chooses not to, says Taylor.
Grant Rosoman, global forests solutions coordinator, Greenpeace International, says that another key cause of deforestation is that the public and private sector doesn’t understand the value of forests beyond the land they occupy or the timber they provide.
“Currently, all the financial incentives are for clearing forests,” says Rosoman. “Unless we find a way to value the externalised cost of the ecosystem services forest provide, society will pay the price.”
A proper value on forests will also ensure the benefits of forests are shared with local and indigenous communities, he adds.
The true worth of forests
One global initiative which tries to put a value on protecting forests is the United Nation’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme.
First launched in 2007, REDD allows wealthy countries to pay developing nations to leave their jungles alone.
In 2010, REDD morphed into REDD+, an extension which recognised the importance of conservation, restoration, and sustainable management of forests.
The scheme was slow to take off due to uncertainties on how developing nations will use the funds and a lack of demand for forest carbon in global markets, among other reasons.
But the Paris Agreement has given the scheme a boost by explicitly recognising the role of forests in fighting climate change and the need for “adequate and predictable financial resources for REDD+”, say experts.
At the summit, Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom also collectively committed US$5 billion for REDD+ over the next five years, adding to the existing US$10 billion fund.
After Paris, “the opportunity for REDD+ is huge”, says Rosoman, noting that for REDD+ to be credible and transparent, governments should adopt a multi-stakeholder governance approach, where civil society and local communities have a say in decision-making processes too.
But some experts question whether REDD+ funding is enough to encourage forest conservation.
WWF’s Taylor, for instance, notes that Norway has pledged US$1 billion for forest protection in Indonesia, but the country’s palm oil and pulp and paper are worth much more than that.
Fred Stolle, senior associate, WRI Forests Programme, adds that even if a community agrees to protect a forest for one year under REDD+, they may later convert it if payments stop.
For REDD+ to succeed, “there has to be a fundamental change in attitude towards understanding the value of forests, and if REDD+ cannot make that happen, then we have not gained much.”
Everyone on board
The good news is, there is plenty of momentum towards forest protection outside of REDD+.
Consumer goods manufacturers and agricultural commodity giants alike have made zero deforestation commitments in recent years. These range from Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever to Wilmar, Golden Agri-Resources and Cargill, who are all among the world’s biggest producers of palm oil.
But individual company commitments don’t go far enough says WWF’s Taylor. Even if one firm promises to stop clearing land, another unscrupulous one may seize and clear the unused land.
What is needed is a “landscape-level approach” where all the stakeholders in a forest area agree on a strategy to manage it in a sustainable yet economically viable way.
Ideally, these groups should strive for zero net deforestation and forest degradation, says Taylor. Even if some forest is cleared in one area, the same type of vegetation should be restored elsewhere in the landscape.
Governments across the world, especially Southeast Asia, are also ramping up forest protection efforts.
Indonesia earlier this month announced a moratorium on new permits for oil palm plantations and mining activities, with President Joko Widodo noting that palm oil output on existing land could be doubled with better seeds.
Singapore too passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in September 2014, which allows it to impose fines of up to S$2 million on companies found to be responsible for haze pollution in the city-state.
Lee Chen Chen, director of policy programmes at think-tank Singapore Institute of International Affairs, notes that the transboundary haze bill “shows gumption”, and underscores the city-state’s political will to tackle illegal forest fires.
But financiers, retailers, and consumers can also do much more to address the issue, she says. Banks should carry out more stringent environmental, social, and governance checks before making investments; this is an area where Singapore lags behind international best practices, she says.
Retailers can do their part by stocking more products bearing sustainability certifications, and educating consumers on the merits of supporting these companies, notes Lee.
“This sort of public education may not result in people changing their habits overnight, but it is a conversation we need to start right now,” she adds.