Protecting tropical forests: A triple win for climate and development

The tropical forest in Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia. Forest conservation should figure prominently in strategies for adapting to climate change. Photo by: Kevin Wasilin / CC BY

On the opening day of the climate summit in Paris, 20 governments and dozens of high-tech industry leaders and philanthropists pledged to massively increase investment in research and development to spur innovation in clean energy. Although also the subject of high-level declarations, far less attention was devoted to a strategy for protecting the climate and promoting development that’s already in hand: maintaining tropical forests.

It’s not widely appreciated that tropical forests have enjoyed a special place in climate change negotiations over the last decade. Recognizing deforestation as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, industrialized and developing countries have agreed on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation — or REDD+ — as a politically attractive mitigation strategy to meet global climate protection goals. Under REDD+, rich countries reward forest-rich countries for reducing deforestation on a payment-for-performance basis.

In addition to their crucial role in promoting global climate stability, standing forests support sustainable livelihoods and contribute to the resilience of households and societies. As a result, investment in protecting tropical forests offers a rare triple win for climate and development.

For policymakers, the benefits are largely invisible

Although largely overlooked by economic policymakers, forest ecosystems generate goods and services that underpin well-being in both adjacent farms and far-away cities. Forests provide a steady stream of cash and subsistence income in the form of wild products gathered from the forest that are seldom captured in national statistics. Yet research from 24 countries has revealed that products such as fuelwood and charcoal, mushrooms, and honey constitute on average 21 percent of household income in communities that live in and around forests.

The ecosystem services provided by forests are even less visible, but crucial for maintaining health and agricultural productivity. Forested watersheds maintain a steady supply of clean, fresh water for drinking, other household uses, and irrigation. Farms adjacent to forests enjoy shade for livestock, and the free pest control and pollination services of bees, birds and bats.  Recent research reveals that forest also provide services on a larger scale, influencing rainfall patterns at great distances. Scientists have linked the current drought in Sao Paulo to deforestation in the Amazon basin.

Forests also help buffer the impacts of climate change

In addition to supporting livelihoods by providing goods and services, forests help ecosystems and societies be more resilient to the anticipated effects of climate change. Intact forests buffer the impacts of the extreme weather events likely to become more frequent and more severe on a warming planet, and for many poor people in developing countries, such protection can mean the difference between life and death. Forested hillsides above precarious dwellings resist landslides during periods of intense rainfall; coastal mangroves temper the waves from coastal storms before they crash into coastal communities.

Indonesia is a dramatic example. The devastating fires that are becoming an annual occurrence illustrate the association between forest condition and resilience. Tropical rainforests are by nature difficult to burn, and the widespread fires seen this year were unknown to previous generations, even in years of scarce rain caused by El Nino events.

The first big fires roared through East Kalimantan in 1982-1983, just after they were opened up and damaged by destructive logging in the 1970s.  An analysis of the even larger fires in 1997-1998 showed that in that province, 59 percent of logged forests burned, while less than 6 percent of intact forests were affected by fire.

Peatlands drained for plantations of fast-growing timber and palm oil have proven especially flammable, and in recent months have been the source of the thick haze that has caused severe respiratory distress in Indonesia and in neighboring countries.

Can the damage be undone?

The implications for development policy and practice are clear. In the case of Indonesia, recognizing the high cost that its citizens have paid for damage to forest ecosystems, the government has announced not only an end to further opening of peatlands for cultivation; it has gone a step further and committed to a program of rehabilitating disturbed peatlands.

Only by blocking drainage canals to re-wet the soil will Indonesia’s peatlands regain their resilience to burning. Where such fragile and important forest ecosystems have been disturbed, investing in expensive restoration may be the only way to protect people from further catastrophic losses.

Far more cost-effective would be protecting such ecosystems from disturbance in the first place.  When forests are slated for conversion to other uses in the name of increased employment and revenues, the loss of existing income streams to local communities and ecosystem services to society-at-large must be taken into account. Where forest clearing is illegal, the costs of enhanced enforcement and support to local forest defenders should be viewed in light of the local benefits and larger public interests at stake. When considering how to provide services ranging from municipal water supplies to coastal storm protection, governments should give preferential consideration to “green infrastructure” solutions that harness natural production and protection systems.

Implications for climate finance

Climate policy and practice need to reflect the multiple benefits of forest conservation. Right now, emissions from tropical deforestation are greater than those from the European Union, and thus should figure more prominently in global mitigation strategies. By their own devices, forests pull carbon out of the air for storage in wood and foliage, thus offering a safe and natural carbon capture and storage technology. Stopping tropical deforestation, allowing damaged forests to recover, and maintaining existing intact forests could mitigate more than one-third of current global emissions. Finance for REDD+ should be commensurate with the size of that opportunity.

Forest conservation should also figure prominently in strategies for adapting to climate change. Maintaining forested watersheds insures municipal water supplies against drought; forested hillsides are insurance against roads closed by landslides; intact forests and peatlands are insurance against fires that destroy property and compromise respiratory health. Protection of such green infrastructure for climate resilience should be a priority target for adaptation finance.

Policymakers need to recognize the triple-win that forests offer in the context of development and climate change. Conserving forests is not only essential to protecting the planet against catastrophic climate change, but is also key to protecting livelihoods and enhancing resilience in the countries that harbor them.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Frances Seymour

    Frances Seymour is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a senior advisor to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. She is leading a project designed to create global consensus on the importance of forest conservation, and to promote results-based financing for REDD+. Previously, she served as director general of the Center for International Forestry Research and was a founding director of the Institutions and Governance Program at the World Resources Institute.

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