Forests: A hot topic at COP21

In Climate Change, Haze
© Mauri Rautkari / WWF

At this year’s UN climate talks in Paris, the spotlight finally shone on an often understated, under-appreciated solution for combating climate change – protecting our forests.

Unbeknown to most, deforestation is the second-largest emitter of global CO2 emissions, accounting for nearly 11% of global CO2 emissions. That’s more than the entire transport sector, and only second to the burning of fossil fuels. Deforestation serves a double blow to the climate because forests absorb carbon and they release it when they are burned.  It’s now clearer than ever, that in order to achieve COP21’s limit of a 2 degree rise in temperatures, we absolutely need to include forests as a mitigation strategy, that is we need forests to protect us from climate change.

An even greater environmental disaster – burning peatlands

Peatlands store some of the highest quantities of carbon on Earth, accumulated over thousands of years. Burning peatland emits methane – a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2. The impact of peat fires on global warming may be more than 200 times greater than fires on other types of land.

Case in point: Peatlands, haze and climate change in Indonesia.

The recent forest fires in Indonesia generated more emissions per day, than the entire US economy. To put things in perspective, the US economy is 20 times larger than Indonesia’s.  Another comparison: The fires over a three-week period were also higher than Germany’s total CO2 emissions in one year. The main reason? More than half of the fires in Indonesia occurred on peatland.

 

Fire Emissions - Indonesia & US

We can use forests as a way to slow climate change while focusing on forests as a buffer against climate change buys us time while we push ahead for renewable energy, allowing for a slower and more orderly transition to a low-carbon economy. But we can’t do that while our forests burn.

The good news: Why there is hope for forests at COP21 in Paris

During the COP21 talks, Prince Charles sounded the clarion call for forest protection. “It’s very simple: We must save our forests, for there is no Plan B to tackle climate change or many of the other critical challenges that face humanity without them”, he said.

39 countries included forest protection in the INDCs. In the lead up to COP21, world leaders signed another agreement for the Sustainable Development Goals – which includes a commitment to halt deforestation by 2020.

SDG 15 Life on Land: By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally. Mobilize significant resources from all sources and at all levels to finance sustainable forest management and provide adequate incentives to developing countries to advance such management, including for conservation and reforestation.
(source: UN Sustainable Development Goals)

The momentum for forest protection is building and right now in Paris leaders are debating how the preservation of tropical forests can be embedded into the next global climate change plan, the final draft of which will be revealed to the world on Thursday.

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