The world has passed its first test since this fall’s revelatory IPCC report heralding the consequences of exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming. The global community came together over the past two weeks in Katowice, Poland, and adopted a rulebook for countries to meet their greenhouse gas commitments under the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. The Katowice Agreement also calls for “enhanced ambition,” a recognition of the fact that current commitments aren’t enough to avoid the apocalyptic consequences of a world that is 2 degrees warmer. The Agreement never explicitly mentions forests. Yet, forests are in the subtext of every page, because if we are to create a livable future for our children, our vision needs to go beyond weaning ourselves off fossil fuels—we also need to save the lungs of our earth.
Forests play an essential role in regulating the carbon our planet. While the world searches for the technology to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, forests have been absorbing massive amounts of carbon and converting it into oxygen for millions of years. Each year, they absorb about a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Forests also act as massive vaults for carbon, keeping a total of 2,150 gigatons of carbon safely out of the atmosphere. This is more than two times the carbon in all currently accessible coal, oil, and gas reserves.
When forests are degraded, however, their ability to sequester carbon is weakened. Forest degradation, the technical term for when a forest is harvested but allowed to grow back, is often treated with less gravity than deforestation, which is when the forest is converted to another use entirely. However, degradation can have climate consequences nearly as dire as deforestation. Even when forests are replanted it takes decades—or even centuries—for them to absorb carbon with their previous efficiency since older trees sequester more carbon.
Forest degradation also releases previously locked-up carbon into the atmosphere. The boreal forest, for example, is the most carbon-dense forest biome in the world. In Canada alone, recent estimates have shown that clearcutting across the boreal forest releases more than 26 million metric tons (Mt) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly 5.5 million passenger vehicles, or 3.6 percent of Canada’s total emissions in 2015.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report this fall detailing the grisly outcomes if the world fails to curb warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius, it also pointed to pathways forward. It highlighted the vital role of halting forest degradation and increasing forest recovery if we are to avoid truly earth-shattering climate impacts.
Yet forests have been primarily viewed as carbon offsets—a way for us to continue burning the same level of fossil fuels if we can keep some of our intact forests. Poland’s Katowice Declaration on “Forests for Climate” released last week, for example, has been criticized as a treatise on how Poland can continue burning coal if it protects its forests. But protecting our intact forests isn’t just an optional safety net—it, along with reducing fossil fuels, is a core component of any successful pathway to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
The world needs to quickly ramp up its efforts to protect its intact forests from further degradation and more fully incorporate industries like forestry into their emissions accounting. Large-scale forest degradation for biofuels cannot be part of the energy solution. In addition, we need to stop relying on forests for throwaway products like tissues and toilet paper and instead integrate more recycled content. Governments need to protect intact forests and ensure that, where there is logging, it is not degrading previously undisturbed, carbon-dense forests.
One of the most effective and important ways to protect forests and their carbon stores is to recognize the rights Indigenous Peoples have to their forest homelands. A recent World Resources Institute (WRI) report found that, in places where Indigenous land rights were stronger, forest degradation and carbon emissions were lower. In Canada, for example, Indigenous Peoples have been leading initiatives on land and species protection, climate monitoring, and sustainable development. Their leadership has far outstripped that of Canada’s federal and provincial governments, and is safeguarding some of the most carbon-rich forest in the world. Yet in Canada and around the world, Indigenous land rights are still not fully recognized. This needs to change, both to comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and for the good of the planet.
The world has dragged its feet on climate action for decades and now needs to sprint to achieve the emissions reductions necessary to keep the planet from catastrophic levels of warming. The Katowice Agreement is cause for celebration, but now we need to face the sobering reality of the daunting task at hand. Business as usual cannot continue for either our energy sector or our treatment of forests. Fossil fuel reduction and forest protection need to go hand-in-hand—both are necessary, but neither alone is sufficient. We will fail in this most dire mission unless countries begin taking meaningful action to protect forests. Saving forests will be critical to saving the planet.