DG’s Column

Trees are one of our best investments against the climate crisis – but who should foot the bill?

Why polluters should pay for Loss and Damage and contribute to green infrastructure
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While not a ‘green bullet’ for the climate crisis, growing more trees is critical to building resilience. Photo by Kelvin Trautman

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We are not going to make it to 1.5°C, or even 2°C. The Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to below these target numbers is becoming a distant dream, with current pledges leading us into a future that is on average 2.5°C hotter than pre-industrial levels by the turn of the century.

This means more frequent and more destructive climate-induced disasters, with countries – rich and poor alike – scrambling to recover from one crisis after another. This future scenario is baked in, regardless of whether we manage to achieve net zero by 2050 (highly unlikely).

Governments worldwide are haemorrhaging billions of dollars due to extreme weather-related events, and in the 31 years since Vanuatu first proposed a mechanism to address Loss and Damages, the failure to act has left an estimated 189 million people in developing countries reeling from climate impacts each year. Coping with the human and economic costs (trillions of dollars) of catastrophes on the scale of floods, droughts, heatwaves, increasing wildfires and storms is driving developing – and developed – countries into debt and eating up funding earmarked for healthcare, education and other critical services. The worst hit are often the most vulnerable, including women and Indigenous Peoples, and inequalities are only widening in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may result in a ‘lost decade’ for development.

Solving the problem of Loss and Damage is critical, and not only for poorer countries. Funding for emergency relief remains a clear priority, albeit far from sufficient to cover the estimated USD290–580 billion per year in climate-induced economic losses facing developing countries by 2030. But we also need to invest in future-proofing our landscapes, communities and economies from the natural disasters looming on the horizon. Failure to do so will leave us like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland: running fast but going nowhere.

POURING OIL ON THE FIRE

In fact, we’re running headlong in the wrong direction – to the tune of USD11 million per minute in fossil fuel subsidies. As revealed in the latest Climate Transparency report, G20 countries ramped up support for the fossil fuel industry to its highest levels in 2021 (even before the war in Ukraine), contributing nearly USD200 billion despite a 2009 promise to phase out such subsidies. Imagine what we could achieve if these incentives were repurposed towards solving the climate crisis, instead of exacerbating it.

Trees and forests must be a significant part of the solution. While they’re not a ‘green bullet’ for climate recovery, we can go very far by harnessing their natural potential.

Beyond their ability to restore degraded landscapes, trees are critical to climate change adaptation in all sectors – from agriculture to water to energy to cities. They mitigate the impact of weather-related damage, whether along vulnerable coastlines or in dryland areas, and can lessen the effects of drought, both locally and over long distances, through their ability to draw from deep water tables and retain moisture and nutrients in the soil. They protect from flooding and erosion, provide shade for other plants, and fix nitrogen. Whether in cities or forests, trees have a cooling effect, lowering surface and air temperatures through shade and evapotranspiration. Forests bolster rainfall stability and resilience, while deforestation exacerbates droughts.

Trees are central to the radical transformation needed to make our food systems viable for future generations. In agroforestry systems, certain tree species are more likely to survive the climate-induced events that will destroy thousands of hectares of food crops over the coming decades – providing a lifeline for the millions of people who rely on rainfed agriculture worldwide. Forests protect watersheds that supply freshwater to more than half of humankind . They are critical to the food security and nutrition of rural people worldwide through both their fruit, nuts and leaves and the wildlife they harbour.

In short, forests, trees and agroforestry support income and livelihood security, enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services, reduce emissions and sequester carbon. And while some critical ecosystems – such as intact forests, riparian forests, mangroves and peat forests (many of which hold irrecoverable carbon) – must be conserved at all cost, it is also important to maintain secondary, managed and planted forests for the production of wood, fibre and food.

Transitioning towards a nature-based economy will require a total investment of USD 8.1 trillion between now and 2050. But we’re USD 4.1 trillion short, according to UN estimates. Currently, only USD133 billion has been invested in nature-based solutions, mainly from public sources. By 2030, we need to triple investments in nature to prevent the most destructive effects of climate change.

WHO WILL FOOT THE BILL?

As we approach another UN climate conference, the spotlight is falling once again on a stark ratio of inequality: the 10% richest people worldwide are generating around half of all greenhouse gas  emissions, while the poorest half of the global population is responsible for just 12% of all emissions.

Hence the recent calls for the polluters – and all those responsible for or profiting from sky-high emissions – to pay up.

Debates have centred around the fact that wealthy countries (i.e., those driving the climate crisis) won’t commit to supplying developing countries (i.e., those bearing the brunt of it) the finance they need to cope, recover and adapt. Yet as data from the World Inequality Database highlights, there are both rich people in developing countries and poor ones in rich countries – with the 10% wealthiest individuals emitting 5–6 times more than half of their less-well-off fellow citizens through their investments and consumer choices. Policies designed to curb emissions in rich nations can hit the poorest segments of society the hardest while leaving the wealthiest largely unaffected.

As the Carbon Majors Report brought to light, just 100 fossil fuel companies generated 71% of global GHG emissions from 1988 to 2017, making obscene profits. And according to the recent The Cost of Delay report by the Loss and Damage Collaboration, between 2000 and 2019 profits made by the fossil fuel industry could have covered the costs of climate-induced economic losses in 55 of the most climate-vulnerable countries – almost 60 times over.


Nations, both rich and poor, have a responsibility to develop the necessary funding mechanisms and incentives – and repurpose perverse ones – to enable systemic transformation


Does this leave rich and poor nations off the hook? Not at all. They have a responsibility to develop the necessary funding mechanisms and incentives – and repurpose perverse ones –  to enable the kind of systemic transformation needed to put global food production systems and supply chains on a greener more resilient course. Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) should have greater focus on adaptation, including ambitious targets for forestry, agroforestry and agroecology, and include these as well as soil health management in workplans and mandates emerging from the Koronivia discussions.

CIFOR-ICRAF is actively supporting climate policy processes in Viet Nam, Peru and Indonesia, building on a record of evidence-backed engagement that has contributed to agroforestry policies in India, Nepal and Southeast Asia, a more inclusive forest policy in Ethiopia, and policies and guidelines on oil palm, peatland fires, restoration and the critical role of forests in global food security and nutrition, as well as myriad subnational processes.

Financing tree- and forest-based solutions will require rapidly building the technical, institutional and financial capacities to implement the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use and countries’ NDCs and biodiversity conservation action plans. Public and private sector investments must be more transparent and equitable. Finally, the Global Stocktake work programme must take into consideration the capacity building and finance requirements of developing countries.

PROOF OF CONCEPT

Nature-based solutions are a sound investment. And while the best time to plant a tree was, as the proverb says, 20 years ago, the best way to plant one is by looking to the science. As CIFOR-ICRAF has shown through its combined 70 years of experience, the genetic, ecological and social science tells us that this means selecting tree species that are best suited to local ecosystems and to the needs of the communities who rely on their resources. It means using agroecological principles, including agroforestry, regenerative agriculture and other better adapted forms of agriculture. And it means ensuring that – from the start – the women and men of Indigenous and local communities are at the centre of solutions that are designed not only to safeguard against harm but also to ensure sustainable livelihoods and well-being. Tracking this requires the development of a framework to monitor, report and verify the impacts of tree-based interventions and agroecological approaches on human and ecosystem health.

Taking a systems-based, landscape approach to solving the wicked problems at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pays off, as shown by the 10-year CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). Led by CIFOR-ICRAF and its strategic partners – the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR and Tropenbos International – the programme resulted in enhanced protection for 26–133 million hectares of forests (representing 24–125 Gt of avoided CO2 emissions), 2–35 million ha of land brought under restoration, better management for 60–204 million ha of land, additional means to exit poverty and reduce vulnerability for 5.1–19.0 million people, and additional means to improve food security and nutrition for 1.1–3.5 million people. The new FTA Partnership continues to uphold trees and forests as drivers of transformational change.

Even at USD10 a ton of CO2, and using the lowest values of the range, this USD800 million investment in FTA translates into USD240 billion in economic returns or avoided losses.

So yes, the news is dire, but it’s still not too late – actions we take now can shift our trajectory away from ecological catastrophe.

What we don’t have time for is poor investment decisions and costly mistakes.

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