Forests are among the world’s best bets for carbon capture. But according to this year’s State of the World’s Forests report from the United Nations, forests are also the foundation of green and equitable economies, sustainable resource management, and biodiversity preservation and are generally key to a brighter future.
This latest report highlights how much forests are undervalued in economic analyses and re-emphasizes a three-pronged approach: preserve existing forests, restore degraded lands and expand agroforestry (the integration of trees and shrubs into agriculture), and sustainably use forest products. These actions need upfront financing, but the amount needed is modest compared to other government spending. And the return on investment—in terms of avoiding climate calamity and building a more equitable and sustainable economy—would be significant.
“Governments are estimated to spend $1.8 trillion a year in military expenditures and more than $5 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies, but only about $50 billion on landscape restoration,” said Robert Nasi, the managing director of The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in CIFOR-ICRAF’s media release about the report. “It’s time for society to rethink our priorities to enable a better future.”
Increases in extreme weather and other climate-change impacts will be expensive, as will counting on future carbon-capture technologies to reverse climate trends later this century. By contrast, halting deforestation is a cost-effective solution that is available now. It’s also among the bigger opportunities to reach climate goals. The UN report projects that preserving existing forests would cover up to 14 percent of the carbon dioxide-equivalent (GtCO2e) emission cuts needed by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5° C. Restoration and agroforestry could contribute up to another five percent.
But there has been little to no progress on this front in recent years. Last fall, 141 countries signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, pledging to end forest loss by 2030. Despite this, forest cover loss—largely of tropical forests—in 2021 was significant enough as to already put that goal potentially out of reach.
“The capacity of tropical countries to address forest conservation may have been undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Manuel Guariguata, a principal scientist for CIFOR-ICRAF and lead for Peru, in the CIFOR-ICRAF’s media release. “During 2020, the total area deforested across the global tropics doubled with respect to pre-COVID-19 values the year before. Shutdowns and public health concerns pushed the political priorities away from forests and trees.”