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4 Reasons to Be Hopeful About Forests at COP 21

World leaders will meet in Paris next week and hopefully forge a historic agreement to fight climate change. We will need every tool at our disposal, including sensible policies and new technologies for clean energy and transportation. But we also have to go back to our roots. Forests, which cover a third of the land on earth, are an often under-appreciated resource for helping to address climate change, ease poverty and secure a sustainable future.

Forests play a central role in the carbon cycle. When trees are cut down, not only do they cease to absorb carbon, but they release greenhouse gases as their biomass decomposes and underlying soil organic matter oxidizes. Deforestation accounts for at least 12 percent of human-caused CO2 emissions, the second-greatest source after burning fossil fuels. For many developing nations in the tropics, deforestation is the largest source of emissions. This is especially true when forests or carbon-rich peat soils are burned. In Indonesia recently, fires set to clear land for agriculture have generated emissions exceeding the average daily emissions from all U.S. economic activity.

However, forests don’t always figure into climate negotiations as prominently as they should. Many countries have included forest management in their proposed climate commitments, but several (like Russia) lack specifics or a proven track record of good forest carbon management. Other countries, like Indonesia, have ambitious goals to reduce deforestation, but may struggle to do so without financial support from richer countries.

But hope springs eternal, and there are reasons to be optimistic about forests at Paris.

First, bold countries and their leaders have proven that it is possible to turn the corner on deforestation. Brazil has reduced forest loss by a stunning 70 percent in the Amazon since 2004 through a combination of improved sustainability policies for soy and beef production, better land rights for indigenous communities, and robust law enforcement supported by satellite monitoring. Tools like Global Forest Watch are now bringing the same satellite-based technology to all the world’s forests on a free, online, interactive platform. The Paris conference will see the launch of GFW Climate, which will link data on tropical forest deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, showing how and where we should invest to keep carbon in forests and how well we’re all doing.

Second, WRI analysis shows that local and indigenous communities are effective managers of forest carbon, and securing local land and resource rights can bring substantial economic benefits. In Brazil, it costs only US$1.57 per hectare (ha) annually to provide communities with secure rights to their forests, while the resulting carbon-mitigation benefits are worth $38/ha to $230/ha per year. For the Brazilian Amazon, that adds up to $162 billion to $194 billion in benefits over 20 years. The scale is also significant- globally, communities have legal rights to about one-eighth of the world’s forests.

Restoration holds the promise of both sequestering carbon and improving livelihoods, as illustrated at this tree nursery in Kenya . Image credit: Aaron Minnick/ WRI

Third, the money is starting to fall into place. Brazil’s success was helped along by billion-dollar partnerships with Norway, Germany and other donor countries. Similar partnerships are underway in Indonesia, Guyana, Peru, Colombia, Liberia, as well as many provinces and local projects. Some of these deals are on a country-to-country basis, others are tied into carbon markets through REDD+ (a scheme for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). Far more money is needed though, to start having impact at the scale we need.

Finally, and most inspiring, countries and communities are starting to bring forests back. Forest restoration in Tigray, Ethiopia, has turned a once famine-prone region into a breadbasket, generating significant benefits for agriculture through soil improvement and water retention. WRI analysis shows approximately 2 billion hectares of the world's deforested and degraded lands, an area twice the size of China, show potential for some form of restoration. Restoring a mere 150 million hectares by 2020 could help feed 200 million people, raise as much as $40 billion annually, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (though it should be noted that restoration is not a substitution for avoiding deforestation). Nine Latin American countries and organizations pledged a collective 20 million hectares for restoration at the last climate conference; this year we could see even more, supported by additional financial investment. We will also see the emergence of a major restoration initiative in Africa, the continent with the greatest area of restoration opportunity and greatest need to address food and water security as well as poverty.

The Paris climate conference is a key moment. Countries should consider land use, agriculture, and forest management in their climate commitments—with robust targets for improved management, conservation and restoration—and not simply rely on existing forests as a carbon sink to offset emissions in other sectors. Companies that impact forests with agriculture and commodity supply chains should join the wave of zero-deforestation commitments, or showcase their progress and share lessons learned. Investors should do the same, and also consider putting their money into landscape restoration, which can deliver substantial long-term returns. The climate community should also acknowledge and account for the wider benefits of forests beyond sequestering carbon, for example livelihoods, water and soil health, support for agriculture, biodiversity, and much more.

Whatever the final agreement in Paris, it is guaranteed to be a stepping stone on a much longer road to a secure and sustainable future. With an eye on forests, we can make sure that path is a green and prosperous one as well.

An abbreviated version of this blog post also appears in Geographical Magazine.


Sustainable dryland forestry also hold great promise, as some draught resistant tree species like Mukau (Melia volkensii) can help reduce desertification, and at the same time offer commercial wood products with qualities similar to that of Mahogany. This can help meet the increasing demand for tropical hardwood and thus reduce the stress this puts on tropical forests due to illegal deforestation. No doubt we all need to turn more attention to trees and all the good they do. Sediment runoff from forests like the Amazon rainforest also feed algae, which again produces oxygen while binding carbon, and at a more efficient rate than the forest can.

Dear Nigel Sizer and James Anderson: thanks for the post. I am attaching below a letter I wrote several days ago (23 November 2015) to Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros who is Director at the Sustainable Finance Program at the WRI. The letter discusses a simple and efficient (partial) solution to the problem of devastating wildfires in Indonesia, a solution which has not received much attention. I hope and believe that this letter will be taken into account in a serious and fast way by the WRI, since, as you know well, the window of opportunity to achieve a significant progress in addressing this difficult problem is open right now (COP21: Paris, Nov 30 - Dec 11, 2015).

Thanks in advance and best regards,

TO: Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, Board of Directors, Greenpeace International, and Director at the Sustainable Finance Program at the World Resources Institute, Washington D.C., United States

FROM: Dr. Daniel Reem, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil

SUBJECT: Indonesia, Greenpeace, COP21: an efficient way to fight the wildfires

DATE: 23 November 2015

Dear Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros,

I am contacting you regarding a very important issue. I hope and believe that you, as a person who puts environmental issues high on the agenda and who has key positions and a lot of experience regarding these and related issues, will agree to devote a few minutes to the reading of this letter and to consider seriously its content.

As you know well, during the last months there have been several devastating fires across Indonesia, many of them in national parks, peatlands, and primary forests. These wildfires have caused a major environmental destruction to natural habitats and property. Several people and countless many animals and plants have suffered and died, among them, unfortunately, members of iconic endangered species such as orangutans and rhinoceros. Millions of
people (in Indonesia and in neighboring countries) have been exposed, for several weeks, to very high levels of pollution. The direct and indirect damage to the economies of these countries is estimated by more than ten billions of dollars.

One of the things which is so astonishing about these wildfires is the magnitude of the pollution: it has been so huge that recent estimates show that Indonesia has already exceeded Brazil, Germany, and Japan in terms of the annual amount of CO2 emissions (for the sake of completeness, links are provided in the appendix at the end of this letter). Moreover, during many days in this crisis the amount of CO2 emitted in Indonesia has surpassed even the emissions of the United States, a superpower whose economy is much bigger than the Indonesian economy. What makes the situation more dire is the fact that this phenomenon has occurred every year during the last decades, albeit usually the damage has been smaller than the damage of this year.

Why am I mentioning all of this? because fortunately, there is a very good opportunity to achieve, in the near future, a major progress in overcoming this difficult and complicated problem. Indeed, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris (Nov 30 - Dec 11, 2015) provides this opportunity for Indonesia, Greenpeace, and the rest of the world to discuss the issue of wildfires and to ask for a long term and serious aid from the world. The connection between the above mentioned wildfires to COP21 is rather clear, since these wildfires contribute a non-negligible portion of the global greenhouse gases emissions.

Various solutions have been suggested over the years and recently to solve the problem and to help Indonesia, and, as you know well, Greenpeace has been involved in some of them, including very recently. Although these solutions (for instance: moratoriums on forests and peatlands, tougher enforcement of the law and the corresponding punishment against those who have been responsible for the ignitions) are very important, they are not perfect, and there exists an additional solution which is especially interesting because it is simple and has a promising potential, yet it seems that it has not received much attention: to seriously upgrade the Indonesian fire service (fire department). This includes a significant increase in the number of firefighters and the corresponding equipment, a serious improvement of the required equipment and the training of the firefighters, better management and deployment of the firefighters, efficient means to combat underground fires (such as ones occurring in peatlands), high quality monitoring tools, efficient means for raising awareness and for preventing fires at the first place, etc. An upgraded Indonesian fire service, when combined with the other solutions mentioned above, significantly enhances them and significantly increases the chance to achieve a reliable long term resolution to the problem of wildfires and haze.

A permanently strong, efficient, and modern Indonesian fire service is a win-win solution for Indonesia, for its neighbors, and for the rest of the world. Needless to say that a lot of efforts are required in order to achieve this goal, and, in particular, to find enough financial resources (your recent paper [6] shows that such resources exist). However, as said before, there is a very good opportunity to make a major progress in this direction in the COP21 in Paris, a few weeks from now. As a matter of fact, since wildfires is a problem which is common in other countries as well (e.g., Australia, Brazil, the United States), strengthening the fire services over the world, especially in places prone to wildfires, may prove to be an important component in the battle against climate change and the destruction of Nature, and as a component in improving the standard of living of millions of people. It can also benefit the economies of various countries not just because of the prevention of destruction but also by allowing some mechanisms of trade (e.g., a country with a strong fire service can sign contracts with neighboring countries for helping these countries to fight fires in their territories), mechanisms which may or may not be combined with other trade mechanisms related to emissions of greenhouse gases.

I hope and believe that you in particular and Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute in general (especially the corresponding boards and
delegations to COP21), will not miss the window of opportunity which is open right now for making a real progress regarding this important issue.

Thanks in advance, good luck, and best regards
Daniel Reem

APPENDIX: a few links

1. Pooi Koon Chong, Singapore and Malaysia Wheeze as Indonesia Goodwill Hammered by Haze, Bloomberg, October 6, 2015

2. Chris Mooney, Indonesian fires are pouring huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, The Washington Post, 20 October 2015

3. Rahmi Carolina, "I'm tired of being made sick by this smoke",, 28 October 2015

4. Rhett Butler, Greenpeace releases dramatic haze photos as Indonesian fire
emissions surpass 1.6B tons,, 1 November 2015:

5. Scientists warn of health damage from Indonesia's haze fires, Asia One, 10 Nov 2015,

6. Michael Westphal, Pascal Canfin, Athena Ballesteros, and Jennifer Morgan, Getting to $100 Billion: Climate Finance Scenarios and Projections to 2020, Working paper,
World Resources Institute, May 2015

7. Guido van der Werf, Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED), Updated: 16 Nov 2015

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