Photography by Diego Perez Romero
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Comunal Amarakaeri Reserve, a protected area managed by the Peruvian government along with the local people.
Photography by Diego Perez Romero

Forests Are the Forgotten Climate Solution, Experts Say

International environmental groups gathering this week will try to devise a plan to use trees to save the planet.

Can protecting forests help save the planet? Environmentalists are hoping the answer is yes.

A group of Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) and community leaders are gathering in San Francisco on September 12 to discuss solutions they hope will mitigate the impacts of climate change.

They're hoping to reach a solution they're calling 30x30. It's a target set specifically to reach goals set forth by the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce carbon emissions, and the organizations attending the summit think sustainably managed forests and land can meet 30 percent of the targeted emissions reduction.

What can forests do to reduce carbon emissions?

Large forests are capable of sucking up large amounts of carbon. Swaths of forest like those found in the Amazon, the largest forested region on the planet, act like a sink to remove emissions from the atmosphere.

Global Forest Watch, which monitors deforestation in real time, estimates that between 2001 and 2017, 800 million acres of tree cover was lost. Much of that was driven by agriculture, logging, and cattle ranching.

The San Francisco summit will focus on solutions that allow these industries to grow but under regulations that enforce sustainability.

Frances Seymour from the World Resources Institute says countries have the capacity to enforce sustainable forest management, but it's political will that stands between their goals and reality.

After Brazil's Example, Peru Strives to Catch Up

“Brazil is a great example,” Seymour says of a country that has balanced industrial growth and sustainability.

From 2004 to 2012, the country, which contains the largest portion of the Amazon rainforest, reduced deforestation by 80 percent.

Seymour says it was thanks to a host of factors, like better law enforcement, recognizing indigenous peoples' land rights, and creating more protected areas that helped the country see environmental success. Since 2016, however, Brazilian deforestation has ticked up, which Seymour credits to shifting political will from the nation's federal government.

Despite the setback, environmentalists and sustainable industry leaders in neighboring Peru still look to Brazil for inspiration in managing their protected areas.

One way the country is trying to scale back deforestation is by offering logging concessions to businesses that pledge to log the forest sustainably. Maderacre is one such concession. It sits in the Madre de Dios region of Peru's southeastern Amazon Basin at the border of Bolivia and Brazil.

The state has awarded Maderacre a concession containing 200,000 hectares on which they can harvest timber for 40 years. Unlike a traditional logging company, Maderacre harvests only one tree per two hectares to prevent converting large swaths of forests into razed land. Each year, they harvest trees from just 11,000 hectares of the concession, before moving to a new plot on a rotating annual basis. Of the plots of land that have been used for logging, new trees are then planted.

Kroll says most of the timber from Maderacre is sold in Europe, and consumers by wood products thousands of miles away will see Maderacre's goods marked by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Nelson Kroll has been working as a forest manager at Maderacre for 16 years and says fuel and labor are the biggest costs of working in the concession. He declined to disclose the concession's annual profit but says the business would be more profitable if they weren't operating sustainably. Trees like the towering shihuahuaco tree, for instance, grow for hundreds of years. Some in Maderacre are homes for endangered species like the harpy eagle.

Kroll says one shihuahuaco tree can fetch $16,000 American dollars, a profit Maderacre forgoes when the tree contains important species. But the goal of the concession is not just to make a profit, notes Kroll, but rather to ensure forests can be a lucrative resource in the long term.

Not all Peruvian forest concessions have been a success story, and a study published in 2017 found that some may enable illegal logging. By analyzing data from the Peruvian agency that oversees the countries 609 forest concessions, the study authors found that 43 percent had been cancelled or were under investigation for major violations.

NGOs in Peru say they need more government funding for law enforcement and monitoring to ensure that sustainable forest management works.

Dredging Up Political Willingness

Representatives from environmental NGOs who are attending the upcoming San Francisco summit hope that engaging representatives who lead cities, states, and native communities will invigorate a grassroots political movement.

It was the World Wildlife Fund who convened a stakeholders who work in different sectors related to forest management. In Peru, the WWF's local branch engaged with everyone from indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation to mayors of growing Amazon cities.

Climate 101: Causes and Effects

According to Seymour, the timing of the summit is politically significant because it comes three years after the Paris Climate Agreement, but a year after the Trump administration submit a formal notice to the UN to withdraw from the agreement.

“[The] state and local action is a response to that,” says Seymour.

What Will 30 Percent Look Like?

“To meet the 30 percent collective goal, those countries that can, must help to mobilize finance, including from private sector, for forest, food, and lands mitigation actions of developing countries,” says Peter Graham, the managing director of policy and research at Climate Advisers.

Nigel Purvis, the former US chief negotiator on climate and now the CEO of Climate Advisers says this action will be everything from reforestation to creating more sustainable agriculture to cutting back on meat consumption.

“It's not a one size fits all [approach],” he says.

He adds that the 30 percent target was negotiated by the stakeholders attending the summit and that it's consistent with targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

To track progress, Climate Advisers is recommending that each stakeholder report their progress under the Paris Agreement’s Nationally Determined Contributions. Only a third of the 165 member countries under the agreement have quantified land sector targets—a lack of action the summit hopes to rectify.

Without a U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement, states like California have tried to compensate with policies like carbon cap and trade programs, but Seymour says, while significant, there’s no substitute for U.S. federal involvement when setting international agreements.

Kurt Holle, the country director of WWF Peru, thinks private investment is the best way to create changes quickly and on a large scale. To him, the Peruvian Amazon has the potential to be the “Silicon Valley” of sustainable forest management.

“This is a place where we can scale now and scale quickly,” says Purvis. “It has been a tiny part of the political attention and media attention. It's really the forgotten solution.”