Not Just Carbon: Capturing All the Benefits of Forests for Stabilizing the Climate from Local to Global Scales
For at least the last 15 years, climate policymakers have increasingly recognized the importance of forests to meeting global climate goals. Since the initiation of negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007 on a framework for what would become known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), strategies to mitigate global warming have included the protection and restoration of forests, especially those in the tropics.
First, the report aims to make the scientific literature about the full range of effects of forests on the climate accessible to policymakers and other stakeholders. The analysis in this report constitutes part of, and builds on, a broader set of analyses funded by the Climate and Land Use Alliance. Other analyses include a scientific synthesis of prior research into the biophysical effects of forests on the climate prepared by a team led by Deborah Lawrence of the University of Virginia (Lawrence et al. 2022), a modeling study of the effects of deforestation in the Amazon on increased temperature and human exposure to heat stress (Alves de Oliveira et al. 2021), and analyses of the economic impacts of deforestation on regional agriculture through biophysical effects (Leite-Filho et al. 2021; Flach et al. 2021).
Second, the report seeks to highlight for policymakers and other stakeholders the policy implications of forest-climate interactions beyond GHGs. It identifies a few of the most significant risks to climate stability at global, regional, and national and local scales posed by the loss of forests and their biophysical interactions with the atmosphere, with a focus on the tropics. It then assesses illustrative gaps in current policies and institutions needed for managing those risks.
Third, the report suggests promising directions for future research, policy development, and institutional innovation to close identified gaps. In so doing, the analysis draws on relevant policy analogues presented by experience in addressing other governance challenges related to forests, water, or the atmosphere, and interactions among them.
- Forests have significant—and overwhelmingly positive—effects on climate stability through biophysical processes that affect transfers of energy and moisture in the atmosphere, contributing to food and water security, protecting human health, and enhancing our ability to adapt to a warming planet.
- Accounting for these processes can significantly affect estimates of the impacts of deforestation on the global climate based on their interaction with the carbon cycle alone, rendering the global cooling effect of avoiding tropical deforestation as much as 50 percent greater.
- Removal of forest cover, especially in the tropics, increases local temperatures and disrupts rainfall patterns in ways that compound the local effects of global climate change, threatening severe consequences for human health and agricultural productivity.
- By failing to take these biophysical effects into account, current policies systematically undervalue forests’ climate services, fail to anticipate the full range of climate risks associated with deforestation, and result in inequitable allocation of responsibilities and resources within and between nations.
- Policymakers should urgently recognize and address the full range of forests’ climate regulation services through institutions operating at relevant scales, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), institutions for regional cooperation, and domestic agencies charged with promoting agricultural productivity and protecting public health.