Forests and Climate Change: From Complex Problem to Integrated Solution

Global warming has become everyday news, often featured in alarming statements by Heads of Governments, scientists or environmental activists. We now know that melting glaciers, erratic global weather patterns, droughts, raging wildfires and creeping invasive species of flora and fauna in new localities are all unmistakably the effects of climate change.
Skeptics of global warming argue that changes in weather patterns are part of the natural variability in the Earth's temperature, but the majority of scientists agree they are most likely due to human-induced increased concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere.
It is crucial for mankind to accept the fact that there is no way to ignore the signs of danger and the risks of the looming global climate change. There is no time to spare, we must act now. This is an excellent opportunity for all stakeholders to meet this challenge through a comprehensive approach in addressing the man-made causes of global warming, in order to create a better and brighter future worthy of the next generations. Scientists have long understood the role forests play in creating microclimates. With increasing awareness on global warming and its main culprit, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the role of forests and plant resources in modifying the impacts of climate change is gaining renewed attention of climatologists, foresters, policymakers and the media worldwide.
The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reconfirmed that the increasing GHG emissions due to human activities have led to a marked increase in atmospheric GHG concentrations. Between 1970 and 2004, global GHG emissions have increased by 70 per cent; CO2 emissions alone have grown by about 80 per cent (28% between 1990 and 2004) and represented 77 per cent of total anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2004. While the largest growth in global emissions from 1970-2004 came from the energy supply sector (an increase of 145%), growth from other sectors was also significant. Emissions from transport, industry, and land use, land-use change and forestry sectors were 120, 65 and 40 per cent, respectively.
Although the facts and figures are clear and known, the question remains: What are Governments and other stakeholders willing to do to address global warming? Is the international community really committed "to come out of the woods" and bring coherence to its approach in going beyond the strict mandates and competences of the international forest-related processes?
Trees and forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis to carbon, and store carbon in the form of wood and vegetation-a process referred to as "carbon sequestration". Trees are generally about 20 per cent carbon by weight. In addition, the overall biomass of forests also acts as a "carbon sink". According to studies reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), forests store enormous amounts of carbon. The world's forests and forest soils currently store more than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon, twice the amount floating free in the atmosphere. Destruction of forests through deforestation or fire adds billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year. Thus, increasing storage and preventing stored carbon from releasing back to the atmosphere are important measures for combating global warming and conserving the environment.
Forests are intricately linked to climate change, both as a cause and a solution. Global climate changes impact the health, distribution and composition of forests. There is increasing evidence that forests are under pressure. Therefore, integrated action should be taken to manage these complex relationships. With the proliferation of international environmental institutions within the United Nations system, the role of forests in mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change is increasingly being addressed in a variety of policy arenas. It is becoming clear that institutional fragmentation leads to incoherence and duplication.
With regard to climate change and forests, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with its specific mandate to combat global warming, is an obvious institutional locus. Another, perhaps lesser-known, body is the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). It is a challenge for both organizations to join hands in making bold leaps forward. UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol provided a broader framework to address climate change challenges with specific emission reduction targets, obligations and mechanisms. The inclusion of afforestation, reforestation and deforestation in the Protocol, and the eligibility of afforestation and reforestation under flexible mechanisms-primarily the Clean Development Mechanism-were regarded as bold and innovative measures to mitigate global warming. However, a number of technical, developmental and equity issues lingered, preventing the efficient use of forest potential. The primary technical and operational concerns included issues of permanency and leakage of forest-based mitigation initiatives. Other concerns include the likelihood of a skewed emphasis of looking at forests as a mere carbon sink, at the cost of its multidimensional significance to livelihood, social, cultural and biodiversity dimensions.

The challenges, lessons learned and possible ways forward were also identified in March 2007 by participants in a workshop in Cairns, Australia, on reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries. There is much to gain if the conceptual lens of UNFCCC, with its exclusive focus on forests as carbon stocks, were broadened by other societal, developmental and environmental considerations. The courage and vision to develop institutional linkages with other international forest-related processes would be an important next step.

In addition to the important developments within the UNFCCC framework, the seventh session of the UNFF in April 2007 adopted a non-legally binding instrument on all types of forests. A multi-year programme of work for the period 2007-2015 was also agreed upon. The outcome of this round of international negotiations has rightly been seen by Member States as a milestone event, recognizing fully the important linkage of forests and climate change in the context of its policy development.
After the adoption of the Forest Principles at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, the international community demonstrated leadership in adding a robust new chapter on the global forest policy, which supports actions on the ground. The linkage between forests and climate change was not only identified by UNFF as highly pertinent, but also observed in a broader, more holistic approach.

It is important to realize that UNFF was established as the central intergovernmental body to comprehensively deal with sustainable forest management. Its decision to address the forest and climate change linkage promises a much anticipated balanced and comprehensive policy consideration that goes beyond the conceptualization of forests as mere carbon sinks. UNFF will address the climate change aspects of forests in its next session in 2009.

The UN Forum on Forests was established in 2000 by the UN Economic and Social Council to promote sustainable forest management and strengthen political commitment towards it. With the broad understanding of sustainable forest management, including its linkage to the climate change and development agenda, this commitment should be translated into actions. While a number of international institutions, instruments and organizations deal with different specific aspects of forests, only UNFF has the mandate and capacity to simultaneously address all aspects of forests in an integrated manner.

In dealing with climate change and forests, the following issues call for immediate and medium-term attention, in order to make a positive contribution of forests to mitigate climate change, adapt forest management to the changing climatic condition, and safeguard the benefits and interests of stakeholders. Sustainable development of society and conservation of the biological diversity of forests, habitat for wildlife and the overall environment must be safeguarded in the equation of climate change mitigation.

  • Work synergistically and collaboratively. UNFCCC and UNFF should work collaboratively on forest-related climate change issues, as both cannot achieve their objectives on their own. The Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), formed to support the work of UNFF, provides a pathway for such collaboration. Both UNFCCC and UNFF Secretariats, together with 12 other forest-related international organizations, instrument secretariat and institutions, should join forces to seek linkages reaching beyond traditionally demarcated competences and lines of operation.
  • More coherence within the UN system. Member States operating within the different governing bodies on international forest policies and climate change should convey consistent messages to relevant bodies. Time and again, lack of internal coordination at the country level results in incoherent, and sometimes conflicting, political signals. Robust and forward-looking decisions can be made in shaping the future agenda, only when Member States speak with one voice.
  • See the bigger picture. Looking at forests for climate change mitigation must take into consideration sustainable development, poverty eradication, rights of indigenous and local communities to forest resources, conservation of biodiversity and other environmental benefits of forests, such as air and water.
  • Prevent deforestation. Avoid perverse incentives to deforest and provide economic incentives to prevent deforestation, as well as establish afforestation and reforestation projects.
  • Carbon accounting. Methodological issues related to carbon accounting, including the development of criteria and indicators, and the inherent problems of additionality, leakage and permanence, should be addressed as early as possible.
  • Strengthen legal instruments. In response to the issues identified above, take advantage of the recently adopted non-legally binding instrument on all types of forests and the UNFF multi-year programme of work to develop and implement a common policy base on the issue of forests, focusing action on the ground.

Well-managed forests can provide practical and affordable solutions to the climate change problem. However, to achieve a comprehensive solution, a number of methodological, technical and institutional issues need to be carefully tackled, including economic and tenure issues. CPF members have much to contribute to this collective challenge. The media and the public at large should equally contribute to create a conducive atmosphere for understanding the role and constraints of forests in climate change and other societal challenges.

While forests show significant societal and environmental potential, the main players, including Governments, business and industry, are in severe need of increased means of implementation, including financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer. To achieve effective solutions to alarming rates of deforestation and forest degradation, as well as mitigate climate change, the international community as a whole needs to pool resources and share both knowledge and financial resources. The mere pointing of fingers, shifting blames or wishing for someone else to take care of the problem will not solve the situation. The seventh session of UNFF made a significant step forward in mobilizing new and additional financial resources for sustainable forest management. We all have to chip in and remain actively engaged. I am confident that human ingenuity, innovation and concerns for the well-being of future generations will motivate us to resolve any anthropogenic causes to natural challenges.