Guest post: The United Nations Climate Change Conference must look to the trees | SDG Knowledge Center

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Ewald Rametsteiner, Deputy Director, Forestry Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Cocoa farmers in West Africa have a problem. Collectively, they produce more than half of the world’s cocoa, but their livelihoods – and the world’s chocolate supply – are threatened by climate change. Simply put, their cocoa trees are sunburned and yields are declining. But they found a solution.
With the help of international agencies, cocoa farmers cultivate fast-growing native tree species among their cocoa trees, they create shade, mimicking what happens in natural forests. This is already helping to maintain and even increase bean yields.

Native trees generate an extraordinary range of other benefits for farmers and the environment. They can be sustainably harvested for timber, provide new habitats for biodiversity, store carbon, and protect soils and watersheds.

Turning to nature for solutions is something we all need to do urgently. Humans have long tried to conquer the natural world, and forests in particular are under pressure.

In the past 30 years alone, we’ve replaced 420 million hectares of natural forest – more than half of Australia’s land area – mostly with farmland and urban settlements. Land degradation affects nearly 2 billion hectares, roughly the size of South America.

But the negative consequences of the quest to get above and harness nature become glaring. A convergence of environmental emergencies – climate change, loss of biodiversity and deterioration of natural systems – now poses a serious threat to humanity and the planet.

Forests are essential for the functioning of the planet and for the achievement of sustainable development goals related to climate change, biodiversity, water security and sustainable production and consumption. Yet we treated them like consumables.

This week, leaders and experts come together for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), one of the most important meetings in history. They have to look to the trees for solutions.

To tackle the climate crisis, we need approaches that simultaneously manage ecosystems sustainably, respond to societal challenges and generate other benefits. Cocoa agroforestry in West Africa is just one example of a wide range of nature-based solutions involving trees and forests. The challenge is to develop them so that they can make a difference on a global scale.

FAO is gathering evidence for three forest pathways that we believe will be critical to averting the multi-headed crisis we are facing. The first is from stop deforestation and forest degradation. In doing so, we will reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, limit the loss of valuable biodiversity, and reduce the risk of future pandemics.

The second is to use forests and trees for restore degraded land and put more trees on farms. This will strengthen the resilience of ecosystems as well as productivity and livelihoods – essential for recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Done on a sufficient scale, this will extract GHGs from the atmosphere and also create a huge resource for the third path – building a more inclusive, resilient and circular economy with forest products and services.

The State of the world’s forests, to be released in 2022, will outline a plan to increase engagement, empowerment and investment in these three pathways.

Wood is almost magical in its versatility – it can replace polluting products like steel, concrete, plastics and textile fibers made from fossil fuels. It could support a new economic approach focused on reuse, recycling and renewal.

Forestry in its various forms – protection, restoration and enhanced sustainable use – can create natural assets, absorb large amounts of GHGs, conserve biodiversity, protect watersheds and supply the world with materials. It does not contain all the answers and has its own challenges, but it will be a big part of the solution if we are to avoid disaster.

The good news is that the first steps along these three forest routes are underway, led by smallholders, communities and many private companies. COP 26 must strengthen support for these actors and accelerate progress. The more we work with nature rather than against it, the better our chances of navigating towards a greener and more sustainable future.


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