Protecting forests is crucial for food sustainability. Forests make a huge contribution to sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition. They do not only provide a direct source of food, but forested watersheds and wetlands are also home to much of the world’s accessible fresh water. They also contribute vital ecosystem services that support sustainable agriculture, for example, by stabilising soils, maintaining soil fertility, regulating water flows, regulating the climate and providing a habitatfor wild pollinators and predators of agricultural pests.In turn, the clearing of land to cultivate a range of crops and foods is leading to deforestation, which threatens to accelerate climate change and undermines biodiversity.
These factors are highlighted by the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition. The FSI looks across the food system and includes deforestation metrics under its sustainable agriculture pillar, which is one of the index’s three key pillars (along with food loss and waste, and nutrition). Current GDP estimates undervalue the contribution of Ethiopia’s forestry sector by about 38 percent.
In Ethiopia – the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria – policymakers are trying to make the nation’s economic development more sustainable. One of the challenges faced is that traditional economic accounting does not adequately consider services that the natural environment contributes to Ethiopia’s economy. Natural resources are, all too often, viewed as a “free gift of nature”.
Mixed news on protecting forests
There’s been a mixed bag of news on forests lately. In Brazil, a huge protected area was opened up for mining, only then to be given a reprieve. In Indonesia, the president, Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi), approved a two-year extension to a moratorium on issuing new licences to use land designated as primary forest and peatland. Meanwhile, the UN Environment Programme has helped to secure a measure of protection for newly discovered peatlands in Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo.
So a few battles have been won, at least for the time being. The wider war to protect the forests, however, rages on, with the underlying drivers of deforestation intact. Put simply, much of the pressure on forests is about ensuring we grow enough to feed an estimated 9bn people by 2050.
Meanwhile, the link between deforestation and climate change is strong. Forests cannot be simply labelled as carbon sinks. New research has shown that these lungs of the planet, when degraded, can function as net emitters of carbon dioxide. Degradation is driven by factors such as relentless logging, wildfires or disease. This trend needs to be turned around.
An impossible challenge?
At face value, the numbers point to a seemingly impossible challenge. More than 800m people on earth, or about one in nine, do not have enough food. As the global population keeps growing, so does the pressure to slash and burn and plough more land. It is then only a matter of time before remote areas, such as the heart of the Congo or the deepest Amazon, are turned over to agriculture. It may start with an access road and the odd mining or palm oil concession here or there, and before we know it the hopes of mitigating catastrophic climate change will have gone up in smoke.
The tropical forest-covered peatlands of the Congo are a prime example. Covering an area bigger than England, their degradation would result in huge potential greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – possibly equivalent to three years of the world’s total fossil-fuel emissions or 20 years of the US’s emissions. Again, the pressure comes from agricultural expansion, forestry and mining, as one of Africa’s most underdeveloped regions seeks to exploit its vast natural wealth and a booming global market.
Fortunately, protecting forests and boosting development is not an impossible equation. Radically improved forest management and conservation will pay off. Thanks to meticulous number-crunching from Frances Seymour and Jonah Busch in their recently released work, Why Forests? Why Now?, the compelling figures point to forests being perhaps the ultimate undervalued asset. Their research has found that 24-30 pertcent of annual global GHG emissions could be cut by halting tropical deforestation entirely and letting damaged tropical forests regrow. This could turn out to be crucial in limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels—a key target of the Paris Agreement of 2015. If tropical forests were included in the world’s portfolio of mitigation actions (alongside actions to reduce fossil-fuel use), the cost of meeting the 2°C target would fall by 28 percent.
In addition, more than 50 tropical countries have been working with the UN, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in exchange for payment-for-performance finance in a programme known as REDD+. This demonstrates that, with forests integrated into global climate policy, the fight against climate change will be both cheaper and faster.
Harnessing private capital
We should also harness the power of private capital and markets. According to Why Forests? Why Now?, the confluence of REDD+ and corporate supply chains gives us a rare opportunity to marry complementary public and private initiatives at national level. In simple terms, that means redirecting the trillions of dollars in annual international financial flows and trade from environmentally destructive activities towards low-emissions growth compatible with protecting essential ecosystems.
The fate of the world’s forests will depend on this shift. Current patterns of trade and investment are a leading cause of the annual loss of some 8m ha of tropical forests – an area the size of Austria – through pressure to meet demand for commodities like beef, soy, palm oil, and pulp and paper. If the private sector is to move from being a part of the problem to a part of the solution, public policies will have to align incentives to support that shift. Rich nations can put in place demand-side policies, such as the EU ban on illegally produced timber, or divest from companies that pose an unacceptable risk to forests, as the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund has done.
On the supply side, we are also starting to see a shift. At UN Environment, we have partnered with a Dutch bank, Rabobank, to finance sustainable agriculture with a new billion-dollar facility. This aims to finance sustainable land use and agriculture through grants, de-risking instruments and credit to clients in Brazil and Indonesia involved in sustainable agricultural production. Support from industry leaders like Rabobank is an extremely important first step. We now need the entire finance industry to change their agricultural lending, away from deforestation and towards integrated landscapes, which provide good jobs, protect biodiversity and reduce climate risks.
Protecting forests, encouraging sustainable land use and landscape restoration is fundamentally about sound investments and good business. Success will be determined by how well we replicate the success stories, how quickly the markets move and how fast this becomes the “new normal” for the finance industry.
This post is based on an article with the same title which can be accessed here.
About the author
Erik Solheim is the Executive Director of UN Environment. Previously, he was the chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, the main body of the world’s development donors. He has also served as Norway’s minister of the environment and international development and acted as the main facilitator of the peace process in Sri Lanka from 1998 to 2005. Moreover, he has contributed to peace processes in Sudan, Nepal, Myanmar and Burundi.