Rainforest Alliance’s Ana Fortin highlights how sustainable forestry practices by communities have led to a net increase in forest cover in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala
Around World Environment Day we hear many devastating stories about habitat loss, species decline and biodiversity collapse. But there is also some positive news to highlight, for instance, on natural climate solutions.
Deforestation may be on the increase around the world, but in some areas, the story is different thanks to the commitment and incredible work of community groups that take care of the forest through sustainable practices.
Take, for instance, the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, where Rainforest Alliance has a decades-long partnership with indigenous and rural communities.
Between 2016 and 2017 the net forest cover increased, for the first time in 17 years, gaining 1,087 hectares of forest, according to a new report authored by USAID, CONAP (Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas), Wildlife Conservation Society, and others.
One uncontested truth in the race against climate change is that we must do everything we can to absorb the CO2 in the air
Why is this good news beyond the local communities and environment? Because we need to wield forests’ power to fight climate change.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last year, we must limit global warming to 1.5C if we’re to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. How we best do that is a matter of contention – but one uncontested truth in the race against climate change is that we must do everything we can to absorb the CO2 in the air.
The IPCC estimates that between 100 and 1,000 gigatons of CO2 will need to be removed from the atmosphere to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees.
Forests play an essential role in this, due to their carbon-storing abilities, and are widely recognised as the most important natural carbon sinks, preventing gas from returning to the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Every year, trees collectively suck in more than a hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is around 60 times the weight of all the humans currently on the planet, while one tree can store around 22kg of carbon dioxide in one year.
But more than seven million hectares of forest are lost every year, an area larger than Sierra Leone. Much of deforestation is driven by permanent land use change for the production of commodities, including beef, soy, palm oil and wood, as well as forestry, agriculture, wildfire, and urbanisation.
Trees aren’t just suffering at the hands of deforestation. Many species and forest ecosystems aren’t well-equipped to fight the changes brought on by climate change, meaning that forest fires, pest outbreaks and drought are becoming increasing threats for trees’ health and numbers.
Natural climate solutions can help achieve more than one-third of the Paris target, since trees absorb around a third of all human carbon emissions
Technological advances such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (Beccs) might eventually have the potential to play some part in helping to limit global warming. But while some experts are placing emphasis on negative emissions technologies to solve climate change, others are urging us to rethink how effective this approach can be.
Some scientists doubt, for example, that biomass is carbon-neutral, and argue that the carbon dioxide released from burning trees isn’t recaptured by new trees for many years, after it has contributed to global warming. Other technological solutions, including direct air capture, are so expensive that there are only a few start-ups in the world currently using the technology.
Natural climate solutions, on the other hand, can help achieve more than one-third of the Paris target, since trees absorb around a third of all human carbon emissions. They can both mitigate climate change and help farmers to adapt and build resilience so that they can protect their livelihoods and continue contributing to the global food supply.
These solutions, including conservation and restoration of forests, and improved land management practices also provide cleaner water, cleaner air and more fertile soil on a local level, which farmers rely on, and helps to stabilise local microclimates. Yet, they currently receive only about 2.5% of public climate financing, which is about one 10th of the investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Forests and land use can play a huge role in humanity staying within the 1.5C target of global warming, but this will require huge efforts to scale-up forest protection and restoration. Sadly, the recognition of their importance co-exists with a lack of political and business will to take the action required to stop our forests being destroyed and eliminated.
At every point during humans’ time on the earth, forests have furthered our survival. From providing the raw materials to produce boats that helped pre-industrial populations discover the world to giving generations life-saving medicines.
Now, they’re one of the best hopes we have to mitigate global warming. The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is just one tangible example proving that people and nature can thrive in harmony.
Ana Fortin is Rainforest Alliance’s senior country manager in Honduras.