Healthy forests provide a pathway to fight climate change and unlock green recovery

March 19, 2021


Forests are a core natural climate solution, critical to addressing the climate emergency. The central argument for REDD+, and the raison d’être for the UN-REDD Programme, is that if deforestation is stopped, and degraded forests are restored, they can provide around a third of the carbon reduction needed to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.   

Last year brought into sharp focus another critical role that forests play in the Earth's natural system of checks and balances: One in three outbreaks of new and emerging diseases are linked to deforestation and other land use changes. The world’s forests act as shields, keeping humans safe from new diseases, such as COVID-19. As we are now collectively learning firsthand, the cost of reducing deforestation to prevent the spread of novel pathogens is substantially less than the economic and mortality costs of responding after the fact.

An unprecedented portion of the world’s population has experienced some degree of lockdown in the past year, resulting in massive social and economic shock across the globe - exacerbating existing inequalities and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political, economic and natural systems.  Where existing social safety nets are not enough to compensate for the income losses of informal labour, forests and ecosystems are immediate resources for subsistence livelihoods, posing increased pressure on forests and ecosystems and on the people who rely on them.

Despite the hardship and loss of the past year, there are reasons to be hopeful that societies will emerge in 2021 with changed attitudes about the natural world, engaged in our collective role as custodians of the planet:  

The People’s Choice Climate Vote, the world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion on climate change, published in January 2021, revealed that conserving forests and land is the most favored policy response to climate change. This preference is strongest in countries with high emissions from deforestation and land use change, indicating that citizens are ready to support aggressive policies to conserve and restore forest landscapes.

This is encouraging, following a year that saw the full commitment of the Green Climate Fund’s pilot programme on results-based payments cumulatively reward eight front-runner REDD+ countries with US$500 million for 102.6MtCO2 avoided emissions from forests and land use. This marks an important milestone in the viability of REDD+, providing critical proof of concept for REDD+ under UNFCCC and an essential incentive signal to REDD+ countries and climate finance markets alike.

The delivery of results-based payments (RBPs) is also timely, considering a significant portion of the approved RBPs are committed to support payment for ecosystem services and social forestry initiatives that support improved local livelihoods through the conservation and sustainable use of forests. These programs are playing an important role in supporting Indigenous peoples and local communities that may otherwise be left behind as countries rebuild their economies post-COVID-19, while simultaneously supporting further forest conservation to deliver greater emissions reductions.

The emissions reduction and carbon sequestration potential of forests is critical to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. According to the IPCC, reducing deforestation is considered “one of the most effective and robust options for climate change mitigation, with large mitigation benefits globally” (IPCC, 2019). Of the 118 countries supported by UNDP’s Climate Promise, over 50  are taking steps to integrate or enhance the role of  the forest and land use sector in their updated NDCs in advance of COP 26, recognizing the substantial potential this sector represents toward increasing overall climate ambition.

Rising to meet the challenge of the climate crisis and COVID-19 recovery can’t be done in isolation (of which, we have all had more than enough this year!). It is only by working together, through innovative and wide-reaching partnerships that capitalize on the combined strengths of governments, civil society, UN agencies and the private sector that we can deliver the scale of committed action and finance that is needed.

The New York Declaration on Forests brings together 50 governments, more than 50 of the world’s biggest companies, and more than 50 influential civil society and Indigenous organizations, who commit to ten ambitious goals related to protecting and restoring forests to halt deforestation by 2030. This multi-stakeholder commitment, if achieved, will drastically reduce emissions from deforestation, restore 350 million hectares of degraded forests and could cut between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tons of carbon pollution every year.  

With the historic challenge of socio-economic recovery from the pandemic ahead of us, UN Secretary- General António Guterres is calling on countries to ‘recover better together’ and to seize the opportunity to not simply reset the global economy, but to transform it to be more sustainable, more equitable, and more resilient so that all people can enjoy lives with dignity on a healthy planet.  

With this in mind, let 2021 be the year to harness the full potential of forests - for the planet and for people.