Beyond Carbon: Forests & the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement calls for the conservation, enhancement, and sustainable management of carbon sinks and reservoirs, which include forests, oceans and wetlands. Parties to the agreement, at all stages of development, are encouraged to take action to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation through policy and positive incentives for related activities.

The inclusion of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) as a standalone article in the Paris Agreement will hopefully mark the end of the haphazard chopping down of forests for agricultural use and economic development. Recognizing the importance of forests in addressing climate change, its inclusion will work to encourage countries to reduce their domestic carbon emissions while simultaneously conserving and restoring forests.

Healthy forests act as carbon sinks by drawing incredible amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it, but when trees are harvested or burned they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Conserving and restoring existing forest is arguably on of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions and address climate change.

The world from a forest landscape restoration perspective (Source: World Resources Institute).

The conservation and restoration of standing forests is also an important aspect of development. The majority of the world’s poor live in rural areas and are heavily dependent on natural resources, including forests. For this reason, it is important that we work to slow climate change and build the resilience of communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods and survival.

One fascinating kind of forest that can sometimes be overlooked grows in the warm waters of tropical oceans all over the world. Mangrove forests play an important role in development and combatting climate change, but there has been a loss of about 50% of global mangrove area since 1990. Adjusting to the responses of coastal ecosystems to rising sea levels caused by climate change is a major challenge for the Pacific Islands and coastal regions. Reduced mangrove area and health would result in an increased threat to human security and shoreline development due to erosion, flooding, and storm waves and surges. However, planting and restoring mangrove forests in coastal areas can improve resilience by preventing erosion and flooding, breaking wind and waves, supporting water quality, protecting biodiversity, providing fish breeding habitat, and storing immense amounts of carbon. Mangrove forests will therefore continue to play an important role in local adaptation plans in coastal zones.

Planting mangroves is a tempting adaptation strategy for developing countries with limited financial resources (Source: Sinking Islands).

During the climate conference Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom pledged US$5 billion to the REDD+ program for 2015-2020. These payments will improve the capacity of developing countries to conserve their standing forests and will also entitle wealthy countries to claim carbon offsets based on the area of forest preserved. Forest conservation and restoration will also have important implications for Canadian public policy and forest management. Canada holds the world’s third-largest forest cover following Russia and Brazil, with more than 160 million hectares of certified forests. In its INDC, has Canada pledged to cut emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Improved forest management practices are estimated to account for about 10 percent of that goal.

National governments will be the drivers of forest conservation and can limit deforestation through policy, for example reducing subsidies on commodities such as palm oil and timber. Countries must also take stronger leadership in the implementation of REDD+ and include it in their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) for the programme to be successful. It is very important that these emerging REDD+ programs collaborate with and respect the rights of local and indigenous peoples in the areas where projects are to be implemented.

There is a long way to go if the international community is to limit temperature rise to well below 2°C, but emphasizing the importance of the conservation, sustainable management, and restoration of forests in reaching this goal is a step in the right direction. For many, the inclusion of REDD+ in the Paris Agreement with support from countries in all stages of development means that forests are finally getting the recognition they deserve.



Laura Maxwell is a first year Master of Development Practice candidate at the University of Waterloo and will be attending COP21 as part of the delegation of Kiribati, a small island nation located in the Pacific Ocean.  Her special interests include climate change, ecology, human health and the environment, and conservation biology.


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