In a new Special Report on Land and Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has underscored the indispensability of the world’s intact forests for averting the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Forests are the lungs of the earth, each year absorbing nearly a third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Forests also act as massive vaults for carbon, locking away twice as much carbon as is in all currently accessible coal, oil, and gas reserves. However, logging and other industrial activities are rapidly degrading forests like the Canadian boreal—turning one of our most powerful climate solutions into a significant sources of carbon emissions, in many cases for the sake of making products like toilet paper that are used once and thrown away. As the world scrambles to find ways of curbing runaway emissions, the IPCC report highlights the urgency of making sweeping changes in the ways we use and value our intact forests.
The IPCC points out that the scale of land degradation “is unprecedented in human history.” In just the last 200 years, we’ve stripped away a third of all our planet’s forest cover, and now over two-thirds of the world’s forests are under human use. Forest regrowth has not nearly kept pace, and our intact forests are growing smaller every day. In addition to having devastating impact on biodiversity and communities, this loss of forests is releasing centuries of locked-up carbon into the atmosphere and, at the same time, removing a critical sink for carbon.
Some forests are particularly effective at locking away carbon into their soils. The most carbon-dense forest ecosystem in the world is the boreal forest—which acre for acre stores more carbon than any major ecosystem aside from wetlands. For instance, the world’s largest intact forest—Canada’s boreal forest—stores nearly twice as much carbon in its vegetation and soils as is in the world’s combined oil reserves. Keeping this carbon where it is, safely out of the atmosphere, is essential.
Unfortunately, unsustainable logging in the boreal forest is undermining this forests’ ability to both absorb and hold onto its carbon stores. Each year approximately one million acres of boreal forest is clearcut – taking a devastating toll on the ways of life of Indigenous Peoples and treasured wildlife like the boreal caribou, in addition to spelling disaster for the climate.This logging is driven in a significant part by a demand for single use, throwaway products like toilet paper, even though more sustainable alternatives like recycled materials exist. And, despite the alarming impact this forest degradation has on the climate, many countries are not adequately accounting for the carbon it is releasing.
The IPCC’s report highlights the need for governments to ensure that intact forests are protected and the climate impacts of logging accounted for. The practice of ignoring the emissions associated with its industrial activities in intact forests must end. One of the best ways of protecting forests is to follow the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, who have safely stewarded their forest homelands for millennia. Time and again, reports have shown that where Indigenous rights to their land are strong, both the climate and biodiversity are better protected. Companies need to do their part, too. Those like Procter and Gamble, which continue to rely on intact boreal forests for fiber to produce throwaway products like Charmin toilet paper need to shift to climate friendly, sustainable alternatives.
At a time when the present impact of climate change continues to manifest themselves in melting Arctic ice, extreme floods and heatwaves, the IPCC’s report is clear – we must not only transform our energy systems, but also how we use our forests. For centuries, we have viewed them primarily as a resource to be extracted. But the IPCC’s report shows that, in fact, the most valuable way to use our forests is to leave them where they are.