Expert Perspectives

Integrating the Land Sector into Long Term Strategies, with Special Attention to Forests

The Paris Agreement’s goal of balancing emissions and removals in the second half of the century has elevated the profile of the land sector, and forests in particular, in long-term climate strategies. Countries should take advantage of three entry points for incorporating the land sector into their long-term strategies: reducing emissions, maintaining and enhancing removals, and maintaining and enhancing resilience. Preserving mitigation and adaptation options for the future require actions now. In many cases, all three of these strategies converge on the same actions: conserving remaining intact natural ecosystems and restoring those that have been disturbed. A suite of policy options are ready for deployment.

Three entry points for forests in long-term strategies

1. Invest in low-cost, land-based emission reductions now as a bridge to higher-cost, more technology-intensive options in the future

Countries should consider front-loading land-based emission reductions in long-term strategies due to their low cost and copious cobenefits. According to one estimate, reducing emissions from deforestation alone constitutes more than 60 percent of the low-cost emission reductions in developing countries other than China (Busch and Engelmann 2017). Another study estimated that the land sector offered 37 percent of cost-effective mitigation actions needed by 2030 (Griscom et al. 2017).

Focusing on these lower-cost emission reductions first would allow for higher ambition at the same cost than other possible portfolios. It would also buy time, providing a bridge to emission reductions that require more time (e.g., to transition away from current energy and transport systems) or are more dependent on new technology. As Norwegian president Jens Stoltenberg (2007) remarked, “Everyone knows how to not cut down a tree.”

Further, land sector emission reductions are associated with many cobenefits that advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These cobenefits include the noncarbon pathways through which forests contribute to climate stability, such as their cooling and evapotranspiration functions that help maintain agricultural productivity. They also include cobenefits related to clean water, clean energy, and prevention of natural disasters (described further below), thus building societal resilience to climate change.

2. Maintain and restore the forests that will be pulling carbon out of the atmosphere 30 years from now

Countries should also consider the land sector when thinking about how to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of balancing emissions and removals by midcentury. Currently, photosynthesis is the only safe, natural, and proven technology we have for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and protecting natural CCS factories (i.e., forests, at less than $5 per ton of avoided emissions) is much less expensive than the projected costs of engineered negative emissions technologies at more than $100 per ton.

Mature forests were once thought to be in equilibrium, with the carbon captured in tree growth counterbalanced by death and decay. But data from long-term monitoring of forest plots in the Amazon (Phillips et al. 2008) and in the Congo Basin (Lewis et al. 2009) show an increase in forest carbon density in recent decades, perhaps due to fertilization by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Thus mature forests are a net carbon sink, at least until the effect of fertilization reaches saturation.

Conversely, there is a danger that such forests could become net sources of carbon emissions, as fragmentation and degradation leave them more vulnerable to fire, drought, and pests. For example, prominent scientists Tom Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre (2018) recently warned that “negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20–25% deforestation.”

Maintaining existing carbon-dense ecosystems should be the highest priority, as restoration of carbon storage and other ecosystem values is comparatively difficult, time-consuming, and costly. It could take a century or more for a tropical forest to grow back, and it may never achieve its previous ecosystem function if, for example, seed-dispersing birds and mammals have been wiped out. But where ecosystems have been degraded, restoration can help preserve options for the future. The largest trees sequester the most carbon, so those needed for midcentury removals should be planted now.

3. Maintain and restore the ecosystems to build resilience to tomorrow’s climate

The third entry point for considering the land sector in long-term strategies relates to adaptation rather than mitigation. Countries should consider building the protection of forests and other natural ecosystems into long-term strategies for resilience in other sectors. In particular:

  • Water: Forested watersheds—and especially cloud forests (Saenz and Mulligan 2013)—provide reliable supplies of clean water for municipal water and sanitation, as well as irrigation for agriculture.
  • Energy: Forested watersheds above hydroelectric dams keep reservoirs full (Saenz et al. 2014); urban trees reduce cooling costs by mitigating the “heat island effect” of cities.
  • Public health and safety: Intact forests and peatlands are more resilient to catastrophic fires, such as those that engulfed Indonesia in 2015; mangrove forests help protect coastal communities from coastal storms and tsunami waves.

Many countries are experiencing the human and economic costs of extended droughts, fires, floods, landslides, and storms exacerbated by warmer temperatures. As such extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent and severe with climate change over time, maintaining the natural infrastructure of forests and wetlands to attenuate their impacts in the future is a good insurance policy.

Three sets of policy actions

Actions that contribute to reducing land-based carbon emissions, protecting the capacity for future removals, and enhancing resilience include (1) providing incentives for better land use, (2) avoiding policy-driven demand for forest-risk commodities, and (3) investing in eligibility for supportive international transactions. All three sets of actions should be implemented in the near term to contribute to long-term goals. In addition, modeling of future emissions trajectories should demonstrate the consequences of failing to implement these actions, which could include not only continued but even accelerated land sector emissions and loss of sequestration capacity.

1. Incentivize better land-use planning and enforcement at jurisdictional scales

Current land-use policies that result in excessive emissions are driven by policies and enforcement patterns that create incentives to emit. In constructing long-term strategies, countries should consider options that provide public and private actors with incentives to conserve natural ecosystems—especially those that contribute most to both emissions mitigation and adaptation options—over the long term.

Establishment of protected areas, recognition of indigenous territories, and enhanced law enforcement effort have all been associated with maintaining forest cover, as Brazil has demonstrated in the Amazon region (Busch and Ferretti-Gallon 2017; Seymour and Busch 2016). Indonesia has recently imposed a moratorium on further development of its carbon-rich peatlands. In addition, infrastructure projects, especially roads, can be planned so as not to fragment vulnerable ecosystems (Damania et al. 2018).

Political support for the adoption and implementation of such policies from subnational jurisdictions may require fiscal incentives to make up for the fiscal disability imposed by making certain areas off-limits to development. India’s model of including forest cover as an element of the formula used to allocate national tax revenues across states is a model to watch (Busch and Mukherjee 2017).

Support for “branding” national and subnational jurisdictions as sources of legally produced and/or environmentally friendly products could provide further incentives through preferential access to markets. For example, Indonesia has obtained the first license to export legally verified timber to the European Union through a voluntary partnership agreement under the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade initiative. The Malaysian state of Sabah is attempting to achieve jurisdictional-scale certification for palm oil as a way of positioning its exports in the global market.

In parallel, many private corporations have committed to deforestation-free commodity supply chains, and to preferential sourcing from jurisdictions that are making progress toward more sustainable land use (Taylor and Streck 2018). Consumer countries, such as the signatories to the 2015 Amsterdam Declaration, have signaled their support for these corporate commitments, and many have put into place public procurement policies favoring the purchase of products certified as sustainable.

2. Avoid “lock-in” of demand for commodities that drive the conversion of forests and other ecosystems

Countries should also consider how to avoid policy-driven increases in demand for the commodities that impel land-use change when incorporating the land-use sector into long-term strategies. Investment in excessive industrial processing capacity for timber or pulp or wood pellets inevitably drives overexploitation of forest resources to keep the mills running. Licensing for such processing capacity should be strictly limited to the flow of feedstocks that can be sustainably produced over the long term from well-managed forests or plantations.

Similarly, policies that create subsidies or mandates for “first generation” biofuels can lead to environmentally perverse outcomes. Once processing capacity (such as ethanol plants or biodiesel refineries) and associated infrastructure are locked in, demand for feedstocks such as corn, soybeans, and palm oil will drive the conversion of natural ecosystems such as forests, peatlands, and grasslands to produce these crops (Morris et al. 2018). Such subsidies are also prone to political lock-in, as favored producers will strongly resist their reduction or removal, so it is best to avoid establishing them in the first place.

3. Invest in eligibility for international support

As part of their long-term strategies, countries should consider investing in readiness to participate in various international publicly financed and market-based mechanisms to reward climate-friendly forest management.

REDD+ (for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, and Conservation, Sustainable Management of Forests, and Enhancement of Forest Carbon Stocks) is a framework negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a way for industrialized countries to reward developing countries for reducing forest-based emissions and enhancing removals. Both types of countries could benefit from the increased ambition that could result from REDD+ transfers of mitigation outcomes, as allowed under the Paris Agreement, building on experience currently being accumulated in the first generation of REDD+ bilateral and multilateral payment agreements. Market-based emission reduction mechanisms, such as the one being designed by the International Civil Aviation Organization to offset emissions from international flights, might include forest carbon offsets (Seymour et al. forthcoming).

To benefit from any of these international sources of public finance or carbon market access in the future, countries will need to invest in national systems to monitor and manage their land resources and establish safeguard systems to meet criteria for participation. For example, to be eligible for performance-based REDD+ payments under the UNFCCC, countries need to have in place a national strategy or action plan, a forest reference emissions level, a national forest monitoring system, and a safeguards information system.


Integrating the land sector, and particularly forests, into long-term strategies offers options for reducing emissions, enhancing removals, and increasing resilience. Sequencing is important, as protecting natural ecosystems in the near term allows for enhanced ambition and preserves options for the future. Policy options are available now; industrialized and developing countries alike have interests in creating incentives for their adoption and implementation.


Busch, J., and J. Engelmann. 2017. “Cost-Effectiveness of Reducing Emissions from Tropical Deforestation, 2016–2015.” Environmental Research Letters 13.

Busch, J., and K. Ferretti-Gallon. 2017. “What Drives Deforestation and What Stops It? A Meta-analysis.” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 11 (1).

Busch, J., and A. Mukherjee. 2017. “Encouraging State Governments to Protect and Restore Forests Using Ecological Fiscal Transfers: India’s Tax Revenue Distribution Reform.” Conservation Letters 11 (2).

Damania, R., J. Russ, D. Wheeler, and A. Federica Barra. 2018. “The Road to Growth: Measuring the Tradeoffs between Economic Growth and Ecological Destruction.” World Development 101: 351–76.

Griscom, B., J. Adams, P. Ellis, R. Houghton, et al. 2017. “Natural Climate Solutions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (44).

Lewis, S.L., G. Lopez-Gonzalez, B. Sonke, K. Affum-Baffoe, T.R. Baker, L.O. Ojo, O.L. Phillips, et al. 2009. “Increasing Carbon Storage in Intact African Tropical Forests.” Nature, no. 457 (7232): 1003-U3.

Lovejoy, T., and C. Nobre. 2018. “Amazon Tipping Point.” Science Advances 4 (2).

Morris, B., A. Dickie, and F. Seymour. 2018. “The Global Debate about Biofuels and Land-Use Change.” Working paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

Phillips, O., S.L. Lewis, T.R. Baker, K. Chao, and N. Higuchi. 2008. “The Changing Amazon Forest.” Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B 363: 1819–27.

Saenz, L., and M. Mulligan. 2013. “The Role of Cloud Affected Forests (CAFs) on Water Inputs to Dams.” Ecosystem Services, no. 5: 69–77.

Saenz, L., M. Mulligan, F. Arjona, and T. Gutierrez. 2014. “The Role of Cloud Forest Restoration on Energy Security.” Ecosystem Services 9: 180–90.

Seymour, F., and J. Busch. 2016. Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.

Seymour, F., M. Wolosin, and C. Meyer. Forthcoming. “REDD+: Global Architecture, Standards, and Finance.” Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

Stoltenberg, J. 2007. “Speech at UN Climate Change Conference in Bali.” December 13.

Taylor, R., and C. Streck. 2018. “The Elusive Impact of the Deforestation-Free Supply Chain Movement.” Working paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone