Forests are crucial in salvaging the Paris goals – EU must lead the way

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Reducing deforestation and restoring land, especially natural forests, could provide about a third of the climate efforts under the Paris Agreement, write MEPs Heidi Hautala and Carlos Zorrinho. [CIFOR / Flickr]

In addition to halting deforestation, the European Union must support forest regeneration efforts across the globe in order to increase removals of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, write Heidi Hautala and Carlos Zorrinho.

MEP Heidi Hautala (Greens/EFA) is the vice-president of the European Parliament and a member of the Development committee. MEP Carlos Zorrinho (S&D) is a member of the Industry, Research and Energy committee of the European Parliament. They are co-hosts of an event “Achieving the 1.5° Target with Forests – What Role for the EU?” on 7 March 2018.

The leaked draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 1.5 degrees report offers a stark warning:unless we drastically cut carbon emissions we will fail to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The prognosis is even grimmer than that: at the current rate, we will pass 1.5 degrees temperature limit in the 2040s – within less than a generation.

Even reducing our emissions as fast as possible will not be enough. But there are solutions – and forests have an essential role. By reducing forest loss, we can suck carbon out of atmosphere and fight climate change. The principle is actually as simple as that.

Reducing deforestation and forest degradation could stop billions of tons of carbon dioxide from being released. And restoring land, especially natural forests, has the potential to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Together these actions could provide about a third of the necessary climate efforts.

However, despite bold pledges to protect and restore forests – such as New York Declaration on Forests and the Bonn Challenge – analysis shows that the importance of forests and good governance has yet to entrench itself in decision makers’ consciousness. As EU decision makers we must lead the way and change this.

Ending the global trade in illegal timber is part of the solution as up to 30% of timber traded globally comes from illegal sources. In some countries, 90% of all logging activities are illegal.

On this front, at least, the EU has been a frontrunner: the measures contained in the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan established by the EU in order to curb illegal logging were pioneering. But now they need to be strengthened while also implemented more effectively.

Allied with this, must be measures to tackle the trade in timber from forests, which have illegally been razed for agriculture. This may be responsible for almost one-third of all tropical timber traded worldwide.

The EU is a global pariah in terms of consuming products like soy and palm oil grown on illegally cleared land. By ending its complicity, it would show it is ready to back up its climate rhetoric with concrete action.

The EU has already made a commitment to halt deforestation by 2020. But we need to know how. The answer would be the long-awaited EU Action Plan on Deforestation, which needs to be released urgently. Clarity is needed on supporting activities to improve forest governance, land use and land use change, and on strengthening community tenure rights over forests.

In addition to halting deforestation, the second part of the solution is supporting efforts to allow forest regeneration and sequestering more carbon.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Sustainable Development Goals countries everywhere have recognised the importance of restoring ecosystems. The Bonn Challenge has inspired many countries to pledge to restore ecosystems in order to enhance carbon sequestration. However, there is an empty spot on the map: EU Member States have yet to submit their own pledges on restoration to enhance their natural ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere!

This is essential as enhancing EU sinks has been shown to be a cost-effective way to mitigate climate change.

Despite this, the EU seems to be going to the opposite direction. The best tool to encourage Member States to increase removals of carbon dioxide via forests – the EU land use land use change and forestry (LULUCF) regulation for the period 2021-2030 – has been finalised with a clear lack of ambition. Upgrading the short term and 2050 targets is necessary to unleash the potential EU forests have.

Despite the growing hunger for wood there are also positive messages from the ground. In Nepal and Scotland communities are bringing back natural forests, Finnish landowners are more interested to move from clear cuts to continuous cover cultivation of forests, Portugal has just launched new legislation regarding forest management, such as incentives to sustainable reforestation and the obligation to clean up forests to prevent forest fires, and in the Central Africa there is growing recognition of community forestry. All these actions will support enhanced carbon storage of forests and help them deliver their unique role in helping limit climate change.

But keeping forests standing and restoring degraded lands is not only crucial for climate action, it is essential if the world is to stop biodiversity loss, support human health and enhance the livelihoods of forest dependent people.

There are ways to act immediately. We need to make sure that EU policy coherently supports forest and the people who depend on them through the EU budget, energy policy and trade agreements. Not only is this the only way to truly fight climate change – but also to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Biodiversity objectives.

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