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Why 2015 Must Be The Year to Protect the Lungs of the Earth

07/04/2015 23:53 BST | Updated 07/06/2015 10:59 BST
Paul Souders via Getty Images

As emissions of greenhouse gases from industry, transport and power generation have occupied the attention of policy makers, businesses and many campaign groups, so the vital roles being played by forests in global climatic stability have been relatively neglected. A new report out today suggests that during this crucial year for global environmental action that a refocus is warranted.

Tropical Forests: A Review, published by today by The Prince of Wales's International Sustainability Unit (ISU) presents a comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of science and policy in relation to tropical forests and concludes that protecting and restoring such systems could provide up to a third of the solution to climate change. Considering the backdrop of recently increasing levels of deforestation in the tropics, showing a year on year increase of about 200,000 hectares during the 2010-2012 period, pushing the overall rate of forest loss to above eight million hectares per year, this is a very significant conclusion.

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Deforestation is causing each year nearly a billion tonnes of carbon being released into the atmosphere, in turn equating to about eight per cent of global emissions. Add to this the effects of forest degradation, caused by among other things the logging of forests to extract timber, and a further six to 14% is added (and more if the degradation of mangroves and peatlands is included in the calculation). On the other side of the tropical forests and climate change ledger is the removal of carbon from the atmosphere by forests. At getting on for two billion tonnes per year this is an even bigger factor than emissions resulting from deforestation.

When looked at in this way, with the forests seen as not only contributors to emissions via deforestation, but also as potential solutions to climate change by restoration and recovery, then some very big numbers emerge. When added together the results of actions to stop forest loss alongside those to reduce degradation and to restore some of what is already lost and actions to reduce deforestation and degradation, and to safeguard existing tropical forest sequestration could, in aggregate, contribute as much as 24-33% of all carbon mitigation, perhaps more if other variables are taken into account.

As countries struggle to reduce emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, this is a very significant conclusion that should reshape the international climate change agenda. But what to do, it is after all not as if there haven't been serious efforts down the decades to halt forest loss? A key focal point that has been advocated for a long time is to address the underlying causes of deforestation. These causes, or drivers as they are sometimes called, are generally economic in nature and come down to countries' efforts to achieve growth and development. That was the reason forests were cleared centuries ago in Europe and it remains the main reason for forest loss in the tropics now.

With this basic fact in mind it would seem that effective strategies to curb deforestation and to restore forests will be based on economic and social strategies rather than programmes that are more environmentally focussed. One strand of action that is known to work is to recognise the sovereignty of forest peoples over the lands they've traditionally inhabited. Their economies rely on the forests remaining intact and the success of designating large areas controlled by indigenous peoples, in among other countries Brazil and Colombia, proves the point. Where the native people have control over the forests then deforestation largely stops.

Another strategy involves the many international companies whose supply chains are based on the agricultural and other commodities that have recently been such powerful drivers of forest loss. Beef, soya, palm oil and pulp and paper companies that supply global brands can be influenced if the manufacturers and processors of such materials get them only from sustainable sources. There are major challenges in doing this, but increasingly it is being done with positive impacts on the ground. Development and commerce continue, but with less deforestation resulting from it. Clampdowns on illegal logging can also make a difference, including through international cooperation. The European Union has for example made some progress through laws enacted to prevent the import of illegally sourced wood.

On top of this has been the development of international frameworks to encourage countries to prevent forest loss through payments made in relation to avoided carbon emissions. This is a complex area but is delivering results as countries with forests see economic incentives to keep these ecosystems intact. The ground-breaking agreement concluded between Norway and Guyana in 2009 is a case in point, whereby the richer partner pays the developing one in relation to how they perform in keeping the forests standing.

Increasingly all of this can be made more effective through new technologies. Satellites, drones and emerging tools to assess the carbon content of forest areas are making it possible to not only come forward with new policies and rules but the means to measure and enforce their effectiveness.

That the world has the practical tools needed to protect and restore the tropical forests is not in doubt. The big questions are more about the extent to which countries and major companies can foster the will to act. Today's new report presents a reminder as to why in this vital year, in which a new climate change accord will hopefully be agreed and new Sustainable Development Goals adopted, that the conservation and restoration of the tropical forests should be at the front and centre of both. This is not only for urgent reasons of global climate protection.

As well as being vital in the global carbon balance the tropical forests are also the most exuberant manifestations of life on Earth, they bring water security advantages and maintain the incredible cultural diversity seen in the thousands of tribal peoples who live in and depend upon the forests. By taking action on carbon the co-benefits could be simply massive.

In a powerful foreword to the report The Prince of Wales says how it is his absolution conviction that "...all humanity and all creation would be deeply diminished if we were to use these astonishing ecosystems." He adds how the forests are "...vital organs, in this case the lungs, of an essentially living and organic whole - our planet. There are no opportunities for transplants if they go wrong or we cause them irreparable damage by not caring for them. Our responsibilities as custodians of the earth and to current and future generations for its wise stewardship, compel us to act".

While time may not on our side an increasing body of science and examples of good practice are. If these can be converted into political action then we might still have cause for great optimism, not only for the forests but for the humans who depend upon them. Today's report presents an excellent summary of what we know and I hope will help us make progress in conserving one of planet Earth's greatest and most vital natural assets.