Atlantic Forest, San Rafael, Paraguay by Emily Sobrevuelo

The silence — and promise — of intact forests

By John Lotspeich, Executive Director, Trillion Trees

Here’s a challenge for our times: make the time to go into a forest and with no earphones on, no guidebook, find the biggest, oldest-looking tree you can find and take a moment to consider what’s before you. Whether a towering English oak in its summer pomp, or a skyscraping California redwood — just reflect for a moment how much this living thing is doing, right now to contribute to the health of our planet. In their forests, often of almost unimaginable age, trees like these have been quietly working their magic for centuries: working within their own ecosystems to help cool the atmosphere, absorb pollution, enrich the soil, regulate the flow of ground water, and — in the case of the oak, for example — support more than 2,300 other species of animal, plant and fungus.

And yet the growing current narrative around trees — particularly as we approach COP26 — can seem to suggest that the most valuable trees are the ones we can plant. Nations, companies, church groups, community collectives are coming together to pledge ambitious targets for tree-planting — indeed the UK alone has promised around a billion will take root by 2050 — to help stabilise the planet’s climate. I welcome, applaud and encourage this kind of direct action, but I find myself worrying about a potentially dangerous vacuum in the narrative, a great ominous silence within our discussion of nature-based solutions, and it is this: when it comes to tackling the intertwined crises facing nature and the climate, here is the stark truth: planting more trees will not alone solve the problem.

We must restore forests and plant trees to achieve the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, yes. But what’s so often being missed in the media’s and political discourse are the phenomenal benefits already being delivered by the Earth’s intact forests — and the fact that no matter how much restoration we do, if we squander the benefits of what we have already, it will be to no avail.

The absence of discussion on the benefits of intact forests is bewildering because the latest data tell us that forests are still disappearing at a catastrophic rate. There were once six trillion trees on the planet, now there are half that number, and we’re still sacrificing over 10 billion every year. That’s the equivalent of losing the entire Amazon rainforest by 2060.

And while initially a vigorous young sapling may work very hard indeed at absorbing carbon as it grows, in fact its value pales into insignificance long-term against its more venerable cousins — especially if those new plantings are destined to become a commercial crop or are created with only cursory care for their suitability to local conditions or their long-term maintenance, so they do not survive into old age.

So in climate terms alone, the need to prioritise keeping our intact forests standing is inarguable. Their carbon absorption capacity is huge — they store an estimated 510 billion tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 13 years of human activity from all sources — and remove around a quarter of global emissions annually (another 10 billion tonnes). Meanwhile, tropical deforestation and degradation contributes over 10 per cent of humanity’s net greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent paper from the non-profit Emergent. If ‘tropical forest deforestation’ were a country, only China and the US would outrank it for environmental damage.

What’s more, deforestation delivers a climate triple-whammy: not only releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, not only destroying its potential as a carbon sink, but often converting that land to emissions-heavy uses such as cattle-ranching or soy-growing. We know it can take over a century for lost forests to recover to their previous levels, and the Emergent report concludes it would require 50 times more land for restoration to generate the same climate mitigation outcome as protecting standing forests in the first place.

So the lesson is this: if we want our restoration and tree-planting efforts to make a difference, we must not undo the good they do by losing the incredible benefits being provided right now by the world’s standing forests.

Warm words on forest protection won’t be enough, of course. And realistically, I and others know from experience that persuading governments and people to fund protection of existing habitat can be a hard sell: action is appealing and concrete, whether you’re a politician, an activist or a corporate leader, it can feel far more compelling to put spades in the hands of schoolchildren and encourage them to dig. So what’s urgently needed now in addition to this groundswell of citizen’s conservation is global policy frameworks that place a real, commensurate value on the precious forests that survive, with new financial mechanisms that incentivise their conservation.

There are opportunities. This October’s UN Biodiversity Conference in China offers the promise of funding pledges, a substantial portion of which should certainly flow to protecting native forests, since 80% of terrestrial biodiversity is to be found there. We’d like to see more nationally determined contributions towards the Paris goals of the kind already in place in enlightened countries like Colombia, whose groundbreaking Herencia Colombia programme is protecting 15 million hectares of natural heritage through a match-funded carbon tax. The partnership between governments in Gabon and Norway also offers a positive model for how richer nations can fulfil their obligations in parts of the world where forests are in greatest peril. And key for many is that we establish a formalised method for calculating carbon benefits of intact forests.

Trillion Trees is not merely shouting from the sidelines here. Within our partnership we are working to develop frameworks such as WCS’s three-part strategy to strengthen the protection of intact forests. Already working in 25 tropical forest countries, the strategy commits to advance rigorous science to measure their value; to catalyse global action by securing new funding; and to accelerate protections by (for example) supporting indigenous peoples to gain legal tenure to their lands. By these means, the modelling suggests that we could secure 207 million hectares of highly intact forest worldwide — and the long-term security of over 100 billion tonnes of CO2.

The silence around the value of intact forests can be deafening. We must make the chorus of voices defending their integrity and extolling their benefits as mighty as those for restoration and tree-planting. And we need concrete changes to the political will and policy frameworks that support our efforts to both restore AND protect. We must avoid undermining the future of intact forests by failing to put in place proper protection mechanisms now, while we still can. In a world where governments have committed to protect 30% of all land and ocean for nature by 2030 yet are spending only $24 billion of the $140 billion per year needed to achieve this, it’s time for the big players who will be at COP26 to step up to help deliver for forests and the planet.

Trillion Trees is a joint venture and shared vision of BirdLife International, Wildlife Conservation Society, and WWF.