DG’s Column

So long tumultuous teens: High hopes for forests in the 2020s

Potential for protective green economy and government policies offer promise
An aerial view of the village of Nalma, Nepal. CIFOR Photo/Edliadi Mokhamad

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Throughout the last decade (2010-2019), tropical deforestation escalated at an alarming rate despite a raft of international commitments, including the New York Declaration on Forests, the U.N. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) agreement, the inclusion of forests in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Aichi targets under the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity.

All of these agreements recognize the vital role forests play in climate change mitigation, but they have not reached their full potential due to weak commitments by governments who do not realize their potential as carbon sinks, according to forestry experts at Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI) in a recent article summarizing a “top 10” of big changes for forests over the past decade.

As a new decade begins, at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), we believe that green social and economic initiatives backed by sound government policies are key to spurring conservation and sustainable management of fragile forest and agroforestry ecosystems.

We must stop whittling away at our forests. They are central to biodiversity, water, the preservation of cultural values and the livelihoods of local and Indigenous communities.


In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the three most recent years with available data, the world witnessed the highest rates of primary forest loss since the turn of the century, the WRI article says, pinpointing fires in Brazil for the spikes in 2016 and 2017.

Yet, as a nature-based climate solution, forests have the potential to contribute more than 30 percent of the mitigation action needed to keep global temperatures in check, studies show.

Unfortunately, a cavalier attitude toward forests prevails, despite the serious situation we confront.

The aim of the landmark 2015 U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change is to curb average temperatures and stop them from rising more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. Forests must be recognized in this context for the key role they play as carbon sinks.

The five warmest years on record have occurred since 2015 and nine of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 2005, according to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). Newly released data show that 2019 was the second hottest year after 2016 in 140 years of record-keeping. Temperatures last year were 1.15 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, NCEI said.

Fires worldwide and shoreline flooding have taken their toll on forests and communities, reducing their ability to withstand global warming and protect against it. Overall, between 2014 and 2018, the world lost 120 million hectares of tree cover, an area larger than Colombia, according to Global Forest Watch.

These facts are frightening, but there were signs throughout the decade that show we may yet be able to work our way out of this human-made crisis, generated in large measure by 20th century supply-and-demand style capitalist economics.


Throughout the teens, some entrepreneurs in the business community began to see the value of preventing biodiversity loss, climate change and environmental degradation.

The concept of the “Green New Deal,” which began to gain momentum in the early 2000s, gained political traction in the United States over the decade and the notion of an economic transformation away from a fossil fuel-based economy, bled into the mainstream.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in December, the European Union unveiled its European Green Deal Investment Plan, which is aimed at ensuring the continent is carbon neutral by 2050. Key components include mobilizing at least a trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) of sustainable investments over the next decade and increasing public and private sector spending on climate and environmental action.

Mark Carney, who recently became U.N. special envoy for climate action and finance after stepping down as governor of the Bank of England, said that British banks and insurers would have to conduct climate stress tests, reveal their exposure to the climate crisis and indicate how they would manage a temperature increase of up to 4 degrees Celsius. As envoy for climate action, Carney will focus on mobilizing private finance to invest in initiatives to help meet the Paris Agreement.

Commodities markets are becoming more and more sensitive to consumer demand for sustainably produced goods, but prices will largely decide whether they are successful.

While initial enthusiasm for the creation of a carbon trading market under REDD+ petered out, research demonstrates that at the local level, many communities around the world are benefiting from related projects at the jurisdictional level. Former CIFOR Director General Frances Seymour has declared that REDD+ is undergoing a renaissance as the number of payment-for-performance and bilateral agreements have grown.

As part of the transition to a green economy, policymakers must begin to establish the parameters for the potential role that forests can play under a circular bioeconomy, which can help achieve SDG targets. We must increase the role of wood-based products, replacing what we can of the fossil-fuel based economy. The emissions associated with any given product should account for all stages of production, use and end of life. For each ton of wood that replaces concrete, the CO2 emissions could be significantly reduced, says Pekka Leskinen, head of the Bioeconomy Program at the European Forest Institute (EFI).

The use of wood-based fibers in the textile industry could also lead to a substantial carbon reduction compared with synthetics. Many studies indicate that the use of wood and wood-based products is associated with lower fossil and process-based emissions when compared to non-wood products.

While the relative pros and cons must be weighed to determine what proportion of biomass better serves sustainability by being left in the forest and contributing to local ecosystem services, we would be well on the road to economic transformation if we were to begin to sort this out.

A soon-to-be-published synthesis by CIFOR and EFI dips into details of the relative benefits of a bioeconomy, illustrating that the construction sector, dominated by carbon intense, non-renewable concrete and steel, could be transformed and become more sustainable through the use of wood. It shows that substituting non-wood products with wood has the potential to achieve average emissions reductions of 1.3 to 1.6 times.

Forests, sustainable forest management and forest-based solutions offer potential to catalyze such a transformation. They can advance the bioeconomy while enhancing biodiversity and supporting wealth creation in rural and urban areas. Such materials as concrete, steel, plastics and synthetic textiles must be replaced by fossil free and renewable materials. In this context, wood, the most versatile renewable material on earth, will be central. Sustainable wood-based solutions are fundamental.

While the most immediate goal for a sustainable future and climate change mitigation is to reduce consumption and emissions, it is also crucial to begin using wood more efficiently for purposes in which wood has a comparative advantage from sustainability and circular economy perspectives.

CIFOR is working with EFI and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) to try and coordinate forest-related polices that could help achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs. To this end, the directors of the three organizations published an open letter to heads of state urging they convene an Earth Forest Summit.


A key component of economic transformation, the groundwork for a U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 led by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), with partners Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), International Union for Conservation of Nature and the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe was formally announced in September at the U.N Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York.

The initiative recognizes that restoration and other natural options could contribute more than a third of the solution to the climate crisis. It also pushes stakeholders to clean up and restore land and waterways on a massive scale, providing an urgently needed buffer against global warming. It aims to pull together all stakeholders from all sectors to create a dialogue and act on restoration.

A major focus in the 2020s must be on preserving primary forests, while restoring secondary forests and degraded land to plantations, agroforestry and bioenergy use wherever it makes ecological and economic sense.

About 12 million hectares of land are lost each year to degradation, harming the wellbeing of more than 3 billion people, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This costs more than 10 percent of annual global gross domestic product in lost ecosystem services. We must restore at least 12 million hectares annually simply to reach land degradation neutrality. Given the high cost of restoration, it must become an economic activity and financially attractive to investors and governments.

Additionally, the value of ecosystem services lost annually to degradation is estimated at $6.3 trillion.  But achieving restoration at scale through an instrument such as the Bonn Challenge — a commitment to restore 150 million hectares of land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030 under the New York Declaration on Forests — could result in trillions in net benefit and a significant return on investments. Restoring degraded forests generates an estimated $7 to $30 in economic benefits for every dollar invested.

While this will not be an easy task, new technologies developed over the past decade offer great strategic potential. Remote sensing and drones have made data collection a standard first step in many research efforts with a geospatial component.

New satellites equipped with radar and high-resolution sensors will help offset the handicap of heavy cloud cover and enable more detailed approaches to quantify ecosystem degradation and carbon measuring, WRI’s Rod Taylor writes, at the same time pointing out that effective biodiversity loss monitoring is still elusive.

CIFOR aims to be at the forefront of technological innovation.


According to the United Nations, the global population hit 7 billion in 2011, and is currently about 7.6 billion.

The U.N. refugee agency says that the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, reporting that an unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home. Worldwide there are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half under the age of 18.

In 2015, 244 million people, or 3.3 per cent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of origin, most crossing borders hoping to find better economic and social opportunities, while others have fled crises. Internal migration within countries is also growing.

Dramatic images of refugees adrift in overcrowded boats or in some cases lifeless and washed up on shorelines, were a shocking reminder of the dire straits some people face, at times due to resource depletion caused by land degradation and climate change.

These mass movements of humanity demand greater research to understand the consequences for landscapes.

For example, refugee camps provide crucial safe zones for displaced people fleeing danger, but resource scarcity can lead to land degradation. More than 1.2 million refugees have found asylum in Uganda, the majority fleeing conflict in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past three years. This has put a strain on humanitarian resources and the environment.

Lalisa Duguma, a climate change researcher at ICRAF, recognized the need to develop ecosystem and landscape management in the camps. He worked with a team of researchers to lead the development of a tree nursery—which they say has so far produced over 170,000 seedlings—tree planting, and maintenance, among other activities.

Internal migration poses its own challenges. It can also lead to ecosystem degradation and disputes over land. Research led by Peter Cronkleton, an anthropologist with CIFOR, demonstrates that understanding the impact of migratory communities is vital.

For example, the government of Peru often states that approximately 80 percent of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon is driven by “migratory agriculture” from the high Andes, but Cronkleton’s research revealed that most migrants were actually from the area. He observed that migrants moved into land they perceived as being unused and available for settlement.

These lands were usually forests cleared by settlers for agricultural use. Gradually, infrastructure followed as state agencies moved in to provide services, build schools, roads and bridges. In some instances, property rights were also formalized, but only in places where the land had been deforested.

“Spontaneous migration into forests, followed by the construction of government-supported infrastructure and property rights for settlers that cleared forest, reveal how cross-sectoral policies have a greater impact on deforestation than the people occupying the landscape,” Cronkleton says.

Time and time again, research demonstrates that the best land managers are Indigenous and local communities.

Close to 1.6 billion people rely on forest resources for their livelihoods and most of them — 1.2 billion people — use trees on farms to generate food and cash, according to FAO, but many have been pushed off traditional lands to make way for massive resource extraction projects without consultation, or in spite of it.

Children living in areas of Africa with high tree cover tend to have more nutritious diets, adding support to studies showing that forests play a key role in human health and food security.

Our research shows that children in Africa living in communities surrounded by good forest cover have higher dietary diversity and more fruit and vegetable consumption,” says Amy Ickowitz, an economist with CIFOR. “In these areas, dietary diversity increases with tree cover, suggesting that in heavily treed areas, children have healthier diets.”

More than 36 percent of the world’s remaining intact forested landscapes are on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, recent research by CIFOR associate scientist John Fa shows. Some 370 million people worldwide identify as Indigenous due to their descent “from populations who inhabited a country before the time of conquest or colonization and who retain at least some of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions,” manage or have land tenure rights over 25 percent of the world’s land surface.


The threats are real for people who stand up to protect their lands. Rights watchdog Global Witness found that more than 1,700 environmental and land defenders have been killed this century, with an average of more than three murdered each week in 2018, reports WRI’s Jessica Web, adding that about 25 to 40 percent are Indigenous Peoples, although they make up only 5 percent of the world’s population.

“The tide of public opinion is changing with greater concern for the impacts that deforestation has on Indigenous communities,” Web says. “We should also expect donor agencies, NGOs and international institutions to continue allocating resources to support Indigenous interests.”

While this may be true, we must work harder to support Indigenous Peoples.

In 2019, we saw representatives from all major faith traditions, with a following of more than a billion people worldwide, commit to ending tropical deforestation through the “Faiths for Forests Declaration and Action Agenda.” They also pledged to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples facing threats to their traditional lands.

UNEP announced the new Faiths for Forests campaign, an initiative of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), which led to the formation of the multi-faith IRI in 2017, two years after Pope Francis shared his fears about the impact of human activities on the environment, climate and rainforests in a major encyclical titled Laudato Si’ (Praise Be) in 2015.

While political support exists in some quarters, we face an uphill battle to challenge negative political leadership on environmental topics, which has had a profound effect.

For example, in 2017, President Donald Trump served notice that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord. In 2019, like-minded President Jair Bolsonaro took office in Brazil, which put forests and Indigenous communities at risk.

As George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach, pointed out at GLF Bonn 2019, under Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, governments made a commitment to inform their citizens about climate change, a contract many have failed to keep.

Marshall also says that mainstream news media bear responsibility for downplaying the threat of climate change by often placing the views of climate scientists next to those of climate change deniers, as if this were a balanced debate.


In 2018, the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It exacerbated fears throughout the environmental community and – significantly – beyond – that temperatures may become an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer in the next 11 years with catastrophic consequences for the planet.

After the release of the report, climate change became a developing news story for mainstream news organizations.

“The media can start with writing about it (climate change) all the time, every headline, every frontpage – because this is so important, people don’t realize how important this is,” said teen activist Greta Thunberg, at the 2018 COP 24 climate talks. Thunberg became internationally recognized as a celebrity youth leader after establishing a Friday sit-in, known as a climate strike, which took off with youth worldwide.

Some six months after COP 24, in May 2019, Britain’s Guardian newspaper changed its official editorial style guide, opting to prioritize the use of such terms as “climate emergency” instead of “climate change” and “global heating” instead of “global warming,” citing Thunberg — who in December was named Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year — as an influence.

Despite the momentum, COP 25 climate talks at the end of the decade were a big disappointment. After two days of extra efforts, negotiators failed to clinch an agreement on the mechanism to govern carbon trading, which would have finalized the Paris Agreement rulebook.

This week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Britain’s heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles continued his efforts as an advocate for nature and the environment when he launched his Sustainable Markets Initiative.

“Nature is not a separate asset class, nature is in fact the lifeblood of our financial markets – we must rapidly realign our own economy to mimic nature’s economy and work in harmony with it,” he said.

In this decade, both nature and forests must find a place at the table because – to cite a quote from an Indigenous leader attending GLF – if you are not sitting at the table, you quickly become part of the menu.

For more information on this topic, please contact Robert Nasi at r.nasi@cgiar.org.
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