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The hidden value of forests

For the sake of climate and development objectives, it's time for forests to take their rightful place as a high priority.

by Frances Seymour
12 February 2020
8 min read
byFrances Seymour
12 February 2020
8 min read

Over the last few months, the connection between land-use change and climate change has gotten a lot of attention.  In August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report on climate change and land.  In September, so-called “nature-based solutions” featured prominently at the United Nations Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York.

This broader focus on land is welcome, as the problem of climate change is often framed exclusively in terms of emissions from burning fossil fuels and discussion of climate solutions limited to increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy.   However, it’s important to highlight the special role of forests among nature-based solutions for achieving both climate objectives and SDGs.

The goals of the Paris Agreement cannot be reached without forests

Forests —especially tropical forests and peatlands—store vast amounts of carbon in their vegetation and soils.  When forests are degraded, cleared or burned, that carbon is released into the atmosphere.  In recent years, gross CO2 emissions from tropical tree cover loss have averaged almost five gigatons per year.  As a result, if tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third after China and the United States as a source of the emissions that cause climate change.

And that’s not all:  standing forests represent a natural carbon sink, as trees continue to sequester carbon as they grow, with larger trees absorbing carbon at the highest rate. When a mature forest is lost, future mitigation potential is also lost.

It would be virtually impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius without addressing forest-based emissions. The September IPCC report concluded that “reducing deforestation and forest degradation represents one of the most effective and robust options for climate change mitigation, with large mitigation benefits globally.”  Yet despite the clear need to end deforestation, recent years have seen record-high levels of primary forest loss, with spikes in 2016 and 2017, and an area the size of Belgium lost in 2018. 

One reason we continue to lose forests is the lack of finance to protect them.  Despite lucrative economic opportunities available from logging or clearing forests for pasture or agricultural crops, financial rewards for conservation are scarce.  Forest-related finance accounts for less than three percent of global development funding related to climate mitigation, an order of magnitude less than forests’ mitigation potential.

But it would be a mistake to think of forests only in terms of their carbon storage capacity; they deliver many other benefits as well.

Forests contribute to many SDGs, including climate resilience

Healthy forest ecosystems contribute to human well-being by providing a myriad of goods and services relevant to the SDGs.  On average forest products—especially fuelwood—supply more than 20 percent of household income for local communities (SDG 1).  Fruits, nuts, mushrooms, and bushmeat collected from the forest supplement diets (SDG 2), while medicinal plants treat illness (SDG 3).  Tropical forests shelter the streams that provide habitat for freshwater fisheries and are home for most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity (SDG 15).

Many services provided by forests are invisible—and unpriced by markets—but are nevertheless economically significant.  Forest-based bats, bees and birds provide pollination services to nearby agricultural fields.  Forested watersheds further support agricultural productivity through hydrological regulation necessary for irrigation, while also providing clean water for municipal water supplies.  Recent research suggests that the evapotranspiration function of forests generates rainfall across great distances.

Loss of forest-based ecosystem services can result in high costs.  Without forested watersheds to control erosion, reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams are more vulnerable to sedimentation, shortening their useful life and affecting access to clean energy (SDG 7).  Degraded forests are more vulnerable to fires that threaten respiratory health.  The 2015 fires in Indonesia resulted in 100,000 premature deaths in the region and a USD 16 billion hit to the economy.

Deforested landscapes are more vulnerable to the extreme weather events that are likely to become more frequent and severe with climate change.  In addition to contributing to global climate stability through carbon storage, forests contribute to local climate stability, for example, by moderating extreme temperatures on adjacent agriculture fields.  Stripped of the “green infrastructure” provided by forest cover, deforested landscapes are less resilient to landslides, floods, and other natural disasters that damage brick-and-mortar infrastructure (SDG 11).  Such natural disasters can knock a nation off its income growth path for decades (SDG 1).

What can be done?

Thanks in large part to dramatic advances in remote sensing technology, we know quite a lot about the drivers of deforestation, and the effectiveness of various strategies to reverse it.  These vary from place to place, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution and the appropriate policy mix must be customized to each jurisdiction.  Nevertheless, the evidence is clear that reducing deforestation requires some combination of:

- Reducing the amount of forested land available for deforestation, for example, by establishing protected areas and by recognizing and defending indigenous peoples’ customary land rights;

- Increasing the cost and risk of converting forest to other uses, for example, by enhancing law enforcement, and ensuring corporate compliance with commitments to get deforestation out of commodity supply chains; and

- Reducing the demand for converted forest land, for example, by intensifying agricultural production and removing perverse subsidies for bioenergy.

However, implementing these policies is difficult for governments, as deforestation-as-usual is often backed by strong vested interests and reforms to forest management must overcome significant political economy barriers.

In order to provide incentives to governments for undertaking such reforms, negotiators under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) developed a framework called REDD+ (for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries).  Under REDD+, rich countries provide financial reward to developing countries for their performance in reducing forest-based emissions.

Although the framework for REDD+ was completed in 2013 and incorporated into the 2015 Paris Agreement, and many forest-rich countries have made significant progress in fulfilling REDD+ eligibility requirements, the large-scale finance needed has lagged behind.  Nevertheless, lessons from REDD+ implementation to date provide a sound basis for future performance as new sources of finance become available.

For the sake of climate and development objectives, it’s time for forests to take their rightful place as a high priority and attract the level of attention and finance they deserve.

The author: Frances Seymour

Distinguished Senior Fellow at the World Resouces Institute (WRI) since 2017, Frances Seymour is one of the world’s foremost authorities on sustainable development. She was a  Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development and before that she served for six years in Indonesia as the Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).