The role of forests in combating climate change

By Tierney Smith

Forests cover 30% of the world’s land surface, and are home to around 90% of the world’s land-based animals, plants, insects and birds.

They are also one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, absorbing 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year and storing billions more.

Around 6 million hectares of virgin forest is lost or changed each year, and as much as a fifth of global emissions are estimated to come from deforestation. Halting this destruction is seen as vital for keeping global temperatures below 2°C.

Some scientists have warned that deforestation must be reduced by 50% by 2020 for the best chance of meeting this target.

Covering 30% of the Earth's land surface, forests can absorb 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually

Speaking at the Rio+20 Summit earlier this year, Louis Verchot, Director of the Forests and Environment Programme at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) said that the role of forests in addressing climate change was only beginning to be understood.

“We have an attention on forest issues which we perhaps haven’t seen in over 20 years,” he said. “Because they were treated in isolation and were forests for the sake of forests it didn’t go nearly as far as many people had hoped at the time.

“Now we have forests linked to climate change and to other international agendas we are seeing much more attention given to them. Between 2005 and now the discourse and the discussion in the international community has taken off.”


REDD+ (Reducing Emission from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is at the forefront of the international community’s effort’s to preserve vast tracts of land currently home to forests.

The initiative, which was born in 2007 as a result of the Bali climate talks, aims to attach a monetary value to carbon stored in forests, and offer financial incentives to developing countries to reduce emissions from forested land.

It also incentivises conservation and sustainable management of forests, together with the enhancement of forests as carbon stocks – through reforestation and afforestation.

REED+ was officially incorporated into the UNFCCC’s agreement on climate change at COP16, and last year at the COP17 conference in Durban more progress was made on implementing the scheme.

Ecosystem Services

The important services forests provide are often ignored. They can act as safety net for local communities, helping them cope with climate shocks. Mangrove forests, for example, can hold back storm surges or cyclonic flooding.

Trees help to protect soil and regulate water on farms. Crops grown in agroforestry systems are often more resilient to drought, excess rain and changes in temperatures.

Wood can often be an additional source of income for households, as well as being a vital source of food. In the Congo Basin 80% of fat and protein people consume comes from animals that live in the surrounding forests. And 2 million people worldwide still rely on forests for their primary source of fuel.

Woodland has a huge role to play in regulating water supplies – decreasing storm runoff and reducing the pollutants in rainfall before it reaches local water sources.

It also acts as a sponge, soaking up rainfall and releasing it at times of drought – regulating water flow. Recent research has linked deforestation with changes in regional rainfall patterns.

A major theme and controversy at the Rio+20 Earth Summit earlier this year was how to value these natural services – named ‘Ecosystem Services‘. Aly Abou-Sabaa from the African Development Bank told RTCC this was vital in order to force governments to take affirmative action.

“Right now in today’s world natural assets have not been given any meaningful value to the extent that their uses are being over exploited and it is taking us in a very very serious direction,” he said.

“It is important that the forests get the right value because it is important for the people living in these forests and exploiting them to recognise that the impact is of unsustainable exploitation of these forests but also to understand how much this exploitation is costing the environment and the whole world globally.”

Forests Week

With Forests, and REDD+ likely to be a key issues at COP18, RTCC has teamed up with the Centre for International Forestry Research to look at some of the key issues surrounding forests.

This week we will be answering the following questions:

– What role can forestry play in climate change mitigation?

– What are the drivers of deforestation and can we to tackle them?

– What is REDD+ and how does it work?

– What decisions on forestry can we expect at COP18?

If you want to get involved or comment on forests week you can contact us on [email protected] or follow the week’s reports on Twitter via #ForestWeek.

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RTCC Video: CIFOR’s Louis Verchot talks to RTCC at Rio+20 about what lessons have been learnt about REDD+ to date….

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