Climate Action in 2020: Time to Focus on Forests

More ambitious policies to reduce deforestation are key to effective climate policy, but to succeed, they require three big changes in approach.

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Mahogany tree seedlings being taken to be planted out in the Amazon. Photo: Getty Images.

Mahogany tree seedlings being taken to be planted out in the Amazon. Photo: Getty Images.

December’s UN climate talks held in Madrid were aptly titled ‘Time for Action’. While little progress was made at the conference in establishing an international framework that would help to instigate this, there is still much scope for action in 2020. The need for this has become all too apparent as the impacts of climate change are increasingly seen around the world.

One of the key areas where progress can be made in 2020 is in increasing the ambition of nationally determined contributions (NDCs), these being governments’ plans to take action in response to climate change. To date, 184 countries have submitted NDCs, yet the commitments that have been made fall far short of what is needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

In 2020, however, many countries will be revising their NDCs, presenting an important opportunity to shift momentum; to date 79 countries have announced that they will be enhancing the ambition of their NDCs.

The forest sector is one area where more ambitious targets are likely to be set, and indeed, at the Climate Action Summit in September 2019, more than 20 countries made new commitments for the conservation, reforestation and restoration of their forests.

This will be essential. As is well documented, reducing deforestation is critical to reducing carbon emissions, while healthy and diverse forests are vital for adapting and increasing resilience to climate change.

However, while it is important that ambitious targets are set, this is relatively easy; the bigger challenge lies in ensuring that these are achievable.

This is all too apparent from experience thus far. In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests set the goal to halve forest loss by 2020, and to end it by 2030. In addition, it included the goal to restore 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forestlands by 2020, and a further 200 million hectares by 2030.

The declaration has been endorsed by over 50 countries, as well as business and civil society organizations, yet the 2020 goals are far from being reached – in the six years since the declaration was launched, it has been found that forest loss increased rather than declined, and only about 27 million hectares of land have been restored.

What then is needed to ensure that the commitments being made by governments in their NDCs will actually be met? Three big changes are required.

Firstly, a shift in perspective is needed in many countries to a more forest-sensitive approach to development, one that gives adequate recognition to the full range of values provided by forests, rather than primarily focusing on their role as a global carbon sink. These include their importance for local and national economies, for livelihoods and the well-being of forest-dependent peoples, and for biodiversity and the regulation of local climate and water systems.

The focus on nature-based solutions at the international level offers potential to support this shift. However, it is critical that these are not seen as ‘niche’ approaches, and that countries identify what nature-based solutions mean for them, and how forests and tree-rich landscapes can best be integrated into their development strategies.

Fundamental to achieving this will be further improvements in governance, and this is the second change that is required. Legal and institutional reforms are needed in many countries as well as significant investments in human and technical resources. This will enable processes to be strengthened, or put in place, so that equitable strategies can be developed and implemented – strategies that reflect a balance of the needs and priorities of the full range of stakeholders, including local and global, rural and urban, women and men, young and old.

Financing will of course be critical for this, and the least developed countries in particular will be hindered in the actions they can take without additional finance. This is the third area of change that is needed, and it is to be hoped that the international community will make better progress on this in 2020. Forest and land-use options are often described as a cost-effective means of tackling climate change, as is noted in the Santiago Call for Action on Forests for example.

This is not to say that these will be easy or cheap – as Chatham House has documented, experience of forest governance reform has shown that it takes significant funding and time to bring about deep-rooted change. However, the huge potential benefits that can result, for the citizens of forest-rich countries as well as for the planet, mean that forests and sustainable land-use are a good investment.