There’s a rainbow in the clouds of climate change – if we act now

Here’s what it will take to make 2024 a year of transformative change
A rainbow over rainforest in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Aris Sanjaya/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Another year, another record. Recent news headlines seem to support the adage that records are made to be broken.

Yet while records are usually positive news in sport or the business world, they serve as grim reminders in the context of climate change, where unprecedented highs are best avoided and are also avoidable.

This month, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year on record by a large margin and was probably the warmest in the past 100,000 years. Daily global temperature averages even briefly surpassed pre-industrial levels by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the upper limit set in the Paris Agreement.

In 2023, all-time highs were also reached for atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, along with global average sea-surface temperatures, while Antarctic sea ice levels set new lows, according to C3S, part of the European Union’s Earth observation programme.

These records are yet another signal that humanity is increasingly living beyond the Earth’s environmental limits and needs to take action to reverse the warming process.

To achieve this goal, we need to continue to pursue long-term solutions to the problem, rather than applying short-term fixes that deal only with its effects. Or as a Nigerian proverb goes: “In a moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.”

Forests and trees are some of the most important ‘bridges’ to a future with a stable climate on an inhabitable planet. They play a key role in mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration, while providing food, medicine, and livelihoods for people. In cities, trees have even been found to cool the land surface temperature by up to 12 degrees Celsius, a major boost to climate change adaptation.

Land ecosystems offer a vital tool that can both help or hinder humanity’s efforts to end the relentless run of annual heat records of recent times. Forests, peatlands, grasslands, and other terrestrial landscapes mitigate climate change when they are nurtured – but exacerbate it when they are degraded.

Agriculture, forestry and other land uses account for 23 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, while natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) uses cutting-edge research to demonstrate how sustainable forest and wetland management, agroforestry, landscape restoration, and other nature-based solutions help mitigate climate change and support adaptation to its effects, as countries strive to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

As the new year unfolds, CIFOR-ICRAF looks forward to ramping up its efforts to build more bridges through global collaboration at key events scheduled for 2024.

In January, we have already conducted a successful workshop in Indonesia promoting sustainable palm oil for community welfare and climate change mitigation through CIFOR-ICRAF research.

This month, CIFOR-ICRAF was present at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where I moderated a session on the sustainable intensification of agricultural production in Africa, featuring a panel of distinguished speakers. I also contributed to a meeting on nature and biodiversity along with other leaders in the nature finance and regenerative agriculture space, and took part in a lunch session titled “From African potential to African prosperity” about setting the continent on a path to strong, sustainable, and inclusive growth.

On the first night of the WEF in Davos, I attended a dinner hosted by the Lombard Odier Group, which brought together leaders from the spheres of industry, academia, finance, science, and climate to review the opportunities and challenges related to transforming and scaling investment into nature-based solutions.

Besides participating in all these events, I had the opportunity to meet with stakeholders from government, business, and civil society, and listen to some inspiring speeches.

It was encouraging to hear US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlight the importance of soil both to food security and to solving national security challenges. “Without good soil, crops fail, prices rise, people go hungry,” he said during his speech, elevating a topic that has previously been given little attention at global meetings of world leaders.

At one session in the SDG Tent at Davos, Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, highlighted how a dollar invested in land restoration can generate up to USD 30, dispelling the perceived risks associated with investments in regenerative practices.

During the annual Nature Positive dinner, Maria Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s minister of environment and sustainable development, gave a wonderful speech urging the world to make peace with nature. “It means to build civilization, society, and economy under environmental limits. Making peace with nature means understanding that we are part of that ecological process,” she said.

Davos is now over for another year, but we have much to look forward to in 2024.

CIFOR-ICRAF is eager to participate in the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) in Nairobi in late February. It will be a great opportunity to interact with many environment ministers who are critical – as funders and local partners – to the work we do around the world.

As a partner and project-based funder of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), we look forward to a packed calendar of events on sustainable land use, highlighted by the 26th IUFRO World Congress in Stockholm, where delegates will address the theme “Forests and Society Towards 2050.”

We will also help build on the 10 years of knowledge sharing and networking fostered by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) – led by CIFOR-ICRAF along with UNEP, the World Bank and more than 30 charter members. GLF has planned another ambitious year of conferences, workshops, and training across the globe and online, bringing Indigenous Peoples, women, and youth to the global stage in the effort to restore the Earth’s landscapes.

As CIFOR-ICRAF addresses interrelated areas where trees can make a difference, our scientists are also eager to intensify their contribution to the work of the three Rio Conventions that combat climate change, desertification, and biodiversity loss.

CIFOR-ICRAF will play its part in fulfilling the objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to enhance implementation of the Paris Agreement and raise ambition at COP 29 in Azerbaijan. We will help commemorate Desertification and Drought Day, hosted by Germany, in the run-up to COP 16 in Saudi Arabia in December. And CIFOR-ICRAF will scale up efforts to counter biodiversity loss at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 16), which begins in Colombia in October.

Let’s look ahead to 2024 with the hope that this is the year when we finally begin to build bridges instead of dams in the fight against climate change and unsustainable land use. Records don’t always need to be broken. With forests and trees, we can help put an end to the steady run of climate milestones that we have become all too accustomed to seeing over the past decade.

Éliane Ubalijoro is the CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF and director general of ICRAF.

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