Time to step up for forests and peatlands

Photo by Denis Ivkovich for the Global Landscapes Forum

By Tim Christophersen, acting Chief of UN Environment’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit and REDD+ Team Leader.

Rooting out climate change

Let’s face it: we are not on track to win the war against climate change. Time is running out, and more and more citizens around the world are starting to feel the effects of a warming world. Nature is sending us increasingly clear warning signs: the World Meteorological Organization puts the risk of another El Niño event in the second half of this year at 50 per cent – only two years after the last ‘once in a decade’ extreme weather phenomenon. And just last month, the entrance to the global seed vault in northern Norway, which was built to keep the world’s agricultural seeds safe for future generations, was flooded by melting permafrost. The natural world is starting to change rapidly, and if we do not step up our pace of climate action, events might overtake us and climate change will slip out of our control. Time has come to take more radical steps. So what can be done?

Firstly, we must harness the power of the land. Forests, fields, wetlands and other terrestrial ecosystems are major carbon stores, and they could absorb enormous additional amounts of carbon dioxide, if we would restore them to a higher level of health and productivity. More than 2 billion hectares of ecosystems world-wide are degraded; almost 20 per cent of all land.

The New York Declaration on Forests and the Sustainable Development Goals are calling for transformative, concerted action to conserve, sustainably manage and restore forests and landscapes. Restoring 350 million hectares over the coming decade, an area the size of India, could remove up to 1.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere every year – the same as taking half of all cars in the world off the road. It would also generate an estimated USD 170 billion per year in net benefits from watershed protection, improved crop yields and forest products.

Secondly, one of the ecosystems that deserve particular attention are peatlands. They are found in almost every country, and yet very little is known about them. Peatlands are formed over thousands of years, by accumulating organic matter and storing it under wet conditions. Some of the large peat domes in the tropics, usually densely forested on the surface, can be over 20 meters deep. And they can cover very large areas: the peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale along the Congo River spans an area the size of England, and might contain the same amount of below-ground carbon as the entire United States has emitted over the past 15 years. We must make sure that these immense carbon stores are kept safe, and that tropical and other peatlands are restored in areas where they are already degraded. Indonesia has the ambitious goal of restoring 2 million hectares of degraded peatlands by the year 2020, which could be one of the largest contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement that any single country will make.

A third overlooked approach is to change the way finance flows into agriculture, forestry and other land-use. In their book ‘Why Forests? Why Now?’, Frances Seymour and Jonah Busch make a sound argument for a massive public and private investment into the conservation, sustainable use and conservation of the world’s forests. Public funds are and will always be too limited to tackle the challenge. Therefore we must change the way the private sector invests. UN Environment has recently launched, with BNP Paribas and other partners, the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility for Indonesia, a USD 1 billion loan facility that will invest in innovative, sustainable landscape solutions. The facility can finance landscape restoration and productivity increases on existing agricultural land, which can support stronger forest protection at jurisdictional and national level. This approach, if successful, could be replicated across other tropical countries where transforming degraded ecosystems into highly productive, healthy and resilient landscapes is a huge opportunity.

The word ‘radical’ comes from the Latin word ‘radix’: root. Taking radical action against climate change might actually just mean that we need to plant more trees, in lots of places. In gardens, cities, fields, and forests – wherever feasible, we need to put down roots to cool the local and global climate. The potential of landscape restoration is immense. And by unlocking the financial muscle, innovative spirit and ubiquitous reach of the private sector, we can restore millions of hectares of degraded land worldwide. This would not only improve the lives of millions of people, it would also give us much-needed time to push through the deep decarbonization of our global economy, which has already begun.

Tim Christophersen is acting Chief of UN Environment’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit and REDD+ Team Leader. He can be reached under tim.christophersen@unenvironment.org