Why forests matter for the 2015 Paris climate agreement

Posted on September, 30 2015

The climate movement must capture this window of opportunity
Forests are the second-largest storehouse of carbon, after the oceans, and have been called “the lungs of the Earth”. Billions of people around the world are directly dependent on forests for fuel, housing and nourishment. When forests are destroyed by logging or by converting land for agriculture, large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. We can’t tackle the tremendous challenges of climate change without conserving forests.
WWF is working toward an ambitious forest conservation target of zero net deforestation and forest degradation by 2020. This target reflects the scale and urgency of the actions needed to overcome the threats to the world’s forests and the lives of millions. Current deforestation trends point toward catastrophic and irreversible losses of biodiversity and runaway climate change. With better governance and smarter land use, it would be possible to meet the global demand for food and forest products as well as the needs of local communities without any further loss of forests by 2030. But we need urgent action supported by strong political will.
Tackling deforestation will require new policies and laws, better implementation of existing laws and regulations, tough crackdowns on corruption, and alternative economic opportunities for local communities, whether they be the 300 million people living in forests or the more than 1 billion directly dependent on forests. This year in particular, we are focusing on making sure that the new climate change deal, which we hope to see finalized in Paris in December 2015, provides incentives to developing countries for reducing deforestation and forest degradation, which will help us fight climate change.
It is not enough to kick the problem down the road another decade. Long-term goals and targets are important, but focusing only on targets for 2025, 2030 or 2050 will push the day of reckoning well beyond the terms of office of the current batch of political leaders, allowing those leaders to avoid accountability for the commitments they make in Paris. Global emissions must peak no later than 2020, and if this is to be possible, we need more action this year, and this decade. Voluntary actions by business and individuals will move us in the right direction, but closing the emissions gap will require political leadership, especially from high-emitting countries and those with access to financial and technological resources and the ability to mobilize these resources on a large scale.
Scientists agree that global emissions must peak in the next five years and sharply decline thereafter to reduce the risks of runaway climate change. Important progress is being made on renewable energy, energy efficiency and low carbon development, but the ambition and the coordination to meet these goals are insufficient.
The 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris will be a key milestone in the climate change struggle, representing the most important opportunity to build global momentum on climate action since COP15 in Copenhagen (2009).
The climate movement must capture this window of opportunity.
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) – the global effort to provide financial incentives for developing countries to reduce their emissions from the forest sector – has been the subject of extensive negotiations under the UNFCCC, and can offer significant incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.  REDD+ is already helping lay the foundation in many tropical forest countries for the private sector to be able to realize their ‘deforestation-free’ commitments on the ground. But we need continued support for this work in Paris.
The text of the Paris Agreement should explicitly acknowledge the contribution of the land sector – which includes global agriculture and forests - and how it can help fight climate change. The land sector must be recognized for its role in both mitigation and adaptation. We also need continued financial support for REDD+ post-2020.
We cannot achieve the goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century without reducing the current high rate of emissions from the land sector. An agreement that overlooks the land sector, which contributes around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, is not an efficient or realistic solution to climate change.
 We’re thrilled to be working as part of an amazing team of committed individuals that make up WWF's global network, and at a critical moment for international environmental stewardship. But WWF can’t do it alone. Government leadership is crucial to accelerate investment in forests and put policies in place that promote sustainable forest and land management. The private sector has tremendous potential to prevent deforestation by improving the way we produce food (beef, palm oil and soy, to name a few examples) or extract minerals.
With real actions from politicians and businesses, and the many small but significant changes we can make as individuals, like buying sustainably sourced paper, chocolate or lipstick (which often contains palm oil), we can all conserve forests and fight climate change in a way that benefits both people and nature.
The power of REDD+ to be part of the climate solution is real and needs to be taken to scale.  Now is the time to deliver on that ambitious commitment.
Tropical forest in Papua New Guinea
© Brent Stirton/WWF Pacific