by Nike Doggart, Technical Advisor, Tanzania Forest Conservation Group

Forests play a critical role in addressing climate change

4th December 2015

‘Conserving forests is essential for climate change mitigation and adaptation,’ is a message that I have heard repeatedly at CoP 21. We need to halt emissions of greenhouse gases from deforestation; and we need protect forests so that they continue to provide life-sustaining ecological services in an increasingly warm and unpredictable world.

At a side-event by CIFOR yesterday, new research was presented showing that deforestation due to agriculture in 97 Tropical countries results in 4.26 GtCO2 yr−1 of emissions into the atmosphere . That’s approximately 8.7 % of global emissions. To tackle those emissions, we need joint strategies to protect forests and improve agriculture. By comparing current agricultural yields with potential yields per hectare, the researchers identified 23 countries, including Tanzania, with high potential for mitigation interventions directed at reducing agriculture-driven deforestation. Strategies to help farmers get more from their land (without increasing pollution), whilst simultaneously protecting forests from further clearance for farmland, could eliminate 8% of global emissions.

In the context of adaptation, research from African drylands was presented by CIFOR’s Djoidi Houria showing how critical woodlands are in sustaining livelihoods during periods of hunger, particularly during the vulnerable time that many farmers face between planting and harvesting, when food stocks are at their lowest.

Several presenters have emphasized the need for more ‘joined up thinking’ about agriculture and forestry, and climate change adaptation and mitigation; and that forest conservation and agroforestry are central to achieving those multiple goals.

In a new report on ‘The risks of relying on tomorrow’s “negative emissions” to guide today’s mitigation ambition’, presented yesterday by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the authors highlighted the considerable risks in assuming that strategies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in future, will work. The researchers looked at some of the most frequently presented options including: large-scale afforestation, landscape restoration (including forest conservation), and bioenergy in combination with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).   They identified three main risks: i. that these prove to be infeasible when most needed; ii. that they cause unacceptable social and environmental impacts; and iii. that their emissions reductions are subsequently reversed by other processes. Of the carbon removal strategies, forest conservation and agroforestry were found to be the least risky strategies, bringing additional benefits in terms of livelihoods, climate change adaptation and biodiversity. Again, this research points to the wisdom of conserving natural forests and promoting agroforestry.

On the ground, a challenge that forest conservation practitioners face is getting timely information on where deforestation is occurring. Yesterday, in a joint side event by the European Space Agency and by the Remote Sensing Technology Center of Japan, two game-changing initiatives were presented. The first is the free, online availability of images and data generated by the European Commission’s Sentinel satellites: This includes free optical and radar imagery from two satellites working in tandem with each other. The 2 satellites were launched in 2014 and 2015, with data from Sentinel 2 being made freely available online since yesterday. This will provide timely, regular and free images of deforestation to users everywhere, with Sentinel 1a collecting data, day or night and irrespective of cloud cover. The Japanese ALOS – PALSAR 2 microwave-emitting sensor was also presented which has similar properties to Sentinel 1a. These initiatives are akin to removing a blindfold from our eyes. We can now see exactly where deforestation is occurring in time to do something about it.

At the heart of CoP 21, negotiators continue to refine the text of the draft Paris agreement. Significant sections of the text are still ‘in brackets’ signalling that decisions have yet to be made. Some of the fundamental areas include whether the purpose of the agreement should be to hold the increase in the global average temperature below 1.5 °C or below 2 °C above preindustrial levels, with other parties arguing that there should be no purpose clause at all. Divisions are starkest with regard to financing, adaptation and ‘loss and damage’. Yesterday,  the Group of 77 and China (most of Africa, South America and Asia) expressed their frustration over the refusal of some developed countries to engage in negotiations in relation to key issues including adaptation and ‘loss and damage’.Whether these profound and long-standing differences can be overcome by the end of next week, remains to be seen.

For Tanzania’s forests, these last 2 days of CoP 21 have reinforced the importance of conserving forests as part of humanities’ strategy to tackle climate change.

Forest conservation is a ‘no-brainer’ when it comes to avoiding and adapting to climate change.

Will the Paris Agreement set humanity on track towards achieving that? Let’s see.