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The crucial importance of conserving intact forests

Blog | Fri, 10 Dec, 2021 · 14 min read
The crucial importance of conserving intact forests

With global deforestation continuing at an alarming rate, it is easy to turn all our efforts and attention to areas where forest loss is ongoing or imminent. Yet, intact forests - forests free from significant human-caused degradation - also play a vital and often overlooked role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. The main large blocks of intact forest, often called “intact forest landscapes,” make up about 25 percent of global forest cover and feature high levels of ecological integrity due to their limited exposure to human activities. Intact forests are super-functional ecosystems that perform extremely well on carbon storage, resilience, climate regulation and more. Although they may seem free of immediate threats, intact forests are, in fact, in steep decline worldwide.

UN-REDD’s Emelyne Cheney interviewed Tom Evans, from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), on the unique value of intact forests and why conserving these precious ecosystems is one of the most powerful nature-based solutions at our disposal in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Emelyne: Can you give us a sense of the range and scale of services provided by intact forests globally, especially in relation to climate change?

Tom: The most intact forests tend to have the highest carbon stocks, as when a forest gets degraded, it progressively loses more and more carbon. For example, intact forest landscapes hold 40 percent of tropical forest carbon in just 20 percent of the tropical forest area. They also tend to be strong continuing carbon sinks. Intact ecosystems, mainly forests, act as net absorbers of carbon, which adds up to a huge amount across the world. They remove around 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, counteracting almost 30% of annual human emissions.

Another important climate value of intact forests is their resilience, they tend to be particularly resistant to threats and shocks, including fire. By the end of the century, intact forest blocks are likely to be among the last places that have resisted the impacts of fire, which obviously accelerates degradation and all sorts of losses.

It is also worth saying that intact forests have some influence over regional and local climates. They tend to be particularly good at returning moisture to the atmosphere, at pumping water out to agricultural regions, the headwaters of rivers and so forth. For instance, it is moisture from the forests of Central Africa that ultimately keeps rivers like the Nile flowing. When these forests get degraded, the hydrological pump stops, or certainly reduces, and you have impacts on weather regimes tens, hundreds, even thousands of kilometers away.

Emelyne: The climate contribution of intact forests is quite phenomenal. My next question is about the threats that they face: what are the pressures on these remote landscapes?

Tom: Deforestation is coming to many intact forest areas over the next decades, certainly. But what tends to come first are various forms of degradation, and so these areas become fragmented, broken up by road networks and other forms of infrastructure. They are increasingly being logged (which is often thought of as deforestation by the wider public but is a form of degradation) and impacted by over hunting and over harvesting of valuable plant species. All these changes can reduce the quality and the value of a forest ecosystem, even while it still appears to be all green on a map. It is in a sense paler and paler green, as these degrading effects proceed.

These impacts are very widespread. For example, there is nearly 20 years of time series data on how intact forest landscapes have been affected by human activity. It shows that such areas have declined by about 9 percent globally between 2000 and 2016. That is a pretty high rate of loss. They got fragmented into smaller and smaller patches, and some of them got lost altogether. Around 20 percent of intact forest landscapes around the tropics are being explored for minerals, oil and gas, and so forth. Many of those will lead to mines, road networks and associated migration. The pressure is quite severe.

Emelyne: So what can be done to stop the decline of intact forests, especially in the context of the upcoming COP 26?

Tom: The first thing to do is to recognize that there is a problem. We must recognize the existence of these large, intact areas, the sink functions they provide, and we must keep them functioning in the way they do, as they underpin all the other forms of carbon mitigation.

With our partners from Forests for Life, we are raising awareness of the threats that these forests face and the fact that they have been neglected in international climate policy. Intact forests are sometimes perceived as so remote that they don’t really face any serious threats. But we should not lose sight of the broader picture that many apparently intact areas are at great risk of no longer being intact, or fully functional, by 2050 when we are aiming to get the world to global net zero carbon emissions.

Once this has been recognized, and we have mapped out the areas that have the highest value, we then need to take action to conserve them, with the support of domestic and international finance. There is a very strong argument to be made for using climate finance to secure intact forests. They are sometimes just seen as a place where biodiversity happens, a place where you might invest in gorilla or elephant conservation. What is missing is their climate value. And that is another issue that we want to raise awareness about: it is really important to treat intact forests as part of nature-based solutions to climate change.

Emelyne: Interesting, what makes you think that these areas are being overlooked by the opportunities related to climate finance and carbon markets?

Tom: A lot of climate finance is quite rightly primarily targeted at places where there is an expectation that emissions are going to happen soon, and where they can be prevented. This is the concept of avoided emissions or avoided forest loss. In the way that calculations and projections are currently done, however, intact forests are often assumed to have zero threats. With little or no historical forest clearance in those places, it is assumed there is, therefore, no threat to avert.

In these places, the threats are in the future or, when the threats are already there, they are being overlooked. We observed intact forest losses from 2000 to 2013, and the deforestation rates were indeed pretty small. But when we looked at the full range of carbon losses, we found that the climate impact was five or six times higher. According to our estimations, the intact forest loss during that period will result in over 626 percent more long-term carbon emissions through 2050 than previously thought.

If a full accounting of the carbon threats was done in intact forests, we would be able to steer much more climate finance towards them. WCS is working with scientists and partner organizations to identify methods that will better capture the full value of intact forests, either through modifications to the current accounting system or through complementary approaches.

Emelyne: Are you for instance referring to the high forest cover low deforestation (HFLD) methodology included in some carbon standards?

Tom: Yes, that is a really good example. We were quite pleased, for instance, that the TREES carbon standard (under ART, the Architecture for REDD+ Transactions) now has a special crediting pathway for a significant portion of the world’s intact forests. That is going to enable countries and jurisdictions, including Indigenous lands, to get some supplementary credits in recognition of some of these previously overlooked factors.

In the end, if we can mobilize this kind of finance more effectively, we can ensure greater support for large-scale, on-the-ground conservation action that these amazing intact forests need including well-run protected areas, forests managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities and climate-friendly development plans for local authorities. With ambitious action and appropriate finance over the coming decade, we can secure intact forests, and the countless services they provide, through the present century and beyond.

For more information on the unique value of intact forest landscapes and the threats they are under, see the Special Edition of Frontiers.