Let’s save forests to fight climate change
Last week, lawmakers placed a much-needed eye toward an often-overlooked climate solution: forest conservation. The House Foreign Affairs Committeeheld a bipartisan hearing on the topic, where Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) noted, “our global effort to combat the climate crisis depends on” protecting forest ecosystems.
Hoyer is right. The destruction of forests (and other ecosystems) — together with unsustainable land use — constitutes the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the burning of fossil fuels. And for many developing countries, land use and deforestation stand alone as the single biggest source of emissions.
Of course, forests also figure into the solutions side of the climate crisis. The Amazon rain forest, for example, contains an estimated 123 billion tons of carbon. For context, the world produced an estimated 36.3 billion tons of CO2 emissions from power generation in 2021. Keeping that carbon in the ground and retaining the rain forest’s ability to absorb new emissions are hugely important. And we also know that keeping forests healthy and standing is more efficient and cost-effective than planting new forests.
When we lose forests, we let loose eons of carbon stored in trees, roots and soil. We also lose ecosystems that are home to most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. We lose our first line of defense against the spread of infectious diseases from wildlife to humans. And we lose the capacity of those forests to absorb new emissions from other sectors — a double whammy of climate impacts.
That’s why conserving forests should be at the center of any successful climate and nature conservation strategy.
Thankfully, forest conservation has a long bipartisan history in Congress — including the Lacey Act Amendments of 2008 to halt the illegal logging trade and the innovative approach of the Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Act. There are several steps that Congress could take right away to continue that legacy and protect forests here in the U.S. and abroad.
First, let’s dig into the challenges facing the world’s forests.
Why do we keep losing forests? It’s probably not for the reasons you think. While many trees are indeed cut down to produce paper products or timber, the biggest global driver behind deforestation and forest degradation is agriculture — particularly for products like beef, soy and palm oil. Here’s how it works: Ranchers or farmers will clear an area of forest to make room for cattle or plant crops, calculating that these products will be more valuable on the global market and for domestic consumption than an intact forest.
Beyond agriculture, infrastructure development is also increasingly contributing to forest loss in many countries. And illegal logging and associated trade — ranked the third-largest global transnational crime after counterfeiting and drug trafficking — not only destroy forests but also strip the economic livelihoods of local communities and responsible companies.
Whatever the cause, we know that forest loss happens every day, on a massive scale, all over the globe. Indeed, in 2021 we lost more than 42,800 square miles of tree cover globally, an area about the size of Virginia.
So, how can Congress help save the world’s forests? Two recently introduced bills provide an important starting point. Hoyer’s America Mitigating and Achieving Zero-emissions Originating from Nature for the 21st Century (AMAZON21) Act would provide the funding needed to make good on President Biden’s pledge at last year’s COP26 climate conference to halt forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Specifically, it would establish a trust fund to finance projects in strategic U.S. partner countries that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including forest conservation and reforestation efforts.
The bipartisan Fostering Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade (FOREST) Act, introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), would establish a new mechanism to eliminate illegal deforestation from key agricultural products imported into the U.S. In doing so, it would level the playing field for law-abiding producers and help cut off unintentional U.S. economic incentives for products related to harmful forest practices.
The time is now for Congress to act. The effects of climate change are all around us and growing more severe with every day of inaction. And there is no pathway to averting catastrophic climate change that doesn’t require halting deforestation. Congress should build on last week’s Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and pass the AMAZON21 Act and the FOREST Act this year. Doing so would mark an important investment in U.S. interests and the well-being of both people and nature — today and for decades to come.
Kerry Cesareo is senior vice president for forests at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
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