Should we extend forested areas to save the planet from the fast-approaching disasters of climate change? This is certainly an important option to reduce the increase in CO2 emissions, coupled with “traditional” mitigation policies and adaptation to the effects of global warming, and potentially—at the end of a decades-long process—begin to reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Although the Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector has received attention and is the subject of initiatives on a global and regional scale—particularly within the United Nations and the European Union—its potential is often underestimated, relegating forestry issues to fringe and niche discussions. Effective and inclusive governance of the sector, and greater visibility into these issues in international debate, is increasingly becoming a key factor in confronting the immense challenges posed by climate change.
Mismanagement of forest areas—about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the destruction of tropical forests—is only one of the major causes of climate change. Currently, LULUCF is also (and most of all) one of the sectors with the most potential for CO2 capture from the atmosphere. Based on UNFCC data, global forest vegetation ensures the storage of large amounts of carbon: 260 billion tons in biomass, 37 billion in dry timber and 189 billion in soil surface and humus. It is estimated that the total amount of carbon stored in global forest ecosystems amounted to around 485 billion tons in 2015, a quantity well beyond the 412 billion tons of CO2 currently in the atmosphere. This is, however, a substantial reduction from the 685 billion tons in 2005, mainly due to human activity in forest environments. Human action has a significant impact in reducing the ability of these ecosystems to reduce and store greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. Deforestation, intensive use of forest resources, and environmental degradation not only limit the potential for CO2 capture and storage in these areas, but also contribute to “freeing”—increasing the concentration levels of—climate-altering substances in the atmosphere. In particular, although deforestation rates have slowed compared to the past—from 7.3 million hectares in 2000 to 3.3 million in 2015—the gradual conversion of forested areas into agricultural land to meet the demands of continued population growth and food constitute a serious challenge to the balance of the ecosystem. In this context, traditional climate change mitigation policies—focused mainly on the penetration of renewable energy and energy efficiency—cannot fail to be supported and complemented by increasing effort on forested areas worldwide. From the sustainable and responsible management of these areas, to policies of repopulation and better management and protection of ecosystems considered at risk, to the fight against degradation and more careful management of agricultural processes, there are many options for ambitious action on the ground that could potentially have an immense impact on the concentration levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Absence from global forums
Despite its great relevance and considerable potential, this topic often remains marginal when addressing the issues of decarbonization and climate change on a global scale. There are a number of institutions, especially within the UN (in addition to recent EU initiatives), which have traditionally been involved in defining a comprehensive policy approach on the issues of forestry/deforestation, and which still play a key role in shaping the agenda and action of the international community. But the focus on the subject is often limited to technical aspects and non-binding statements and objectives. The United Nations Forest Forum (UNFF), an intergovernmental process created in 2000 with the specific aim of promoting forest management, conservation and sustainable development, is certainly the main institutional forum where governments can advance multilateral dialog on forest policy, facilitated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) and the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF). With the approval of the General Assembly in 2007, the UNFF also established the United Nations Forest Instrument, a non-binding tool designed to bolster political action and cooperation in order to improve forest management and the ability of the international community to achieve global forestry goals, including those related to sustainable development. In addition to the UNFF’s activities and initiatives, there is also the action of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which, in light of the contribution of agricultural activities to deforestation processes (about 80 percent), has developed a portfolio and significant in-ternal expertise in forestry. The Department working on these issues—in addition to constant monitoring of the status of forests through publications and outreach work—focuses mainly on building capacity in developing countries. The FAO also actively contributes to the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD) initiative, developed by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to support developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to deforestation. Via the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), the FAO and 14 other international forestry organizations have established an innovative horizontal partnership that will enable them to pool and align their expertise and tools with the goals of promoting sustainable development of forested areas and of strengthening long-term political commitments to these matters. The absence of a strong political vision is evidenced by the fact that the European Union, a global leader in environmental protection and the fight against climate change, has to date taken a downward approach to sustainable and virtuous management of forested areas. Until 2020, the EU’s carbonization target—a 20 percent reduction in CO2 on 2005 figures—does not even take into account the LULUCF sector, either in terms of emissions counts or the potential for CO2 absorption by forested areas. Only in discussions of the European Energy and Climate Framework for 2030 has the issue been addressed in a structured way, with the creation within the Union of a mechanism which provides for the compensation of greenhouse gas emissions from the LULUCF sector for 2021-2030, through an equivalent level of CO2 absorption from the atmosphere. This mechanism provides Member States with a framework for encouraging more climate-friendly land use without imposing new restrictions or bureaucratic burdens on individual operators.
Seeking visibility and international governance
The still-highly technical and non-binding approach developed within the organizations of the United Nations system, the only recent action of the European Union on this issue, and the lack of significant debate among the major global emitters, demonstrate the necessity of bringing the importance of the LULUCF sector to the attention of the international community. The preparatory work at COP21 in Paris, with the definition by the participating states of their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), represented—with all respective limitations— an important first step toward the beginning of collective consciousness of the sector’s contribution to combating climate change. In setting their decarbonization targets, governments were free to decide whether and how to include the LULUCF sector in their counts and, apart from a few exceptions (Egypt, South Korea, Belarus), almost all of them included parameters related to land and forest use in their national indexes. Although the level of detail provided by different countries (especially in terms of accounting) often makes it difficult to objectively assess the impact of the effort made in the LULUCF sector on combating climate change, their inclusion in the governance mechanisms envisaged by the Paris Agreement certainly offers hope for greater focus on the issue in the future. This attention has been entirely missing in the two main global political forums, the G7, and especially the G20. The debate on forestry/ deforestation issues and the sustainable management of forested areas within the two groups was virtually absent until the beginning of 2019, which is quite unjustified, especially for the G20. Among the “great” twenty international powers are countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, Russia and Mexico, which are also some of the countries most affected by practices of widespread deforestation and the unsustainable use of forested areas. In light of these data, and the global size and impact of deforestation processes, it would therefore be appropriate and legitimate to expect greater attention and a more proactive role from the group on these issues. Only in the face of the ongoing catastrophe in the Amazon rainforest and the media wave it has created in international public opinion, the G7 (and less so, the G20) have taken their first major steps—at least in terms of statements—on the management and exploitation of forested areas as a globally relevant matter. The statement adopted by the G7 Environment Ministers’ Meeting in Metz on the need to “stop deforestation, also via a chain of sustainable value for food commodities” and the attention at the Biarritz summit in August 2019 on the state of the Amazon forest, during which the G7 countries allocated an aid package (bizarrely rejected by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro) to deal with the devastating fires in the area, are probably the first steps toward a more structured discussion on these issues within the international community.
A lack of strong global leadership
However, many steps still remain to be taken, and significant obstacles to be faced. The lack of serious internal debate by the two major global powers (the United States and China), conflicting interests among international players such as Russia and Brazil, and the European Union’s too-solitary (and still too timid) action, on which topics they have often given up, are currently reining in an unequivocal response and a firm approach to the issue. In the hope that the G7 and G20 will get going with conviction and ambition, the lack of strong leadership on a global scale requires us to try to overcome these obstacles via international governance based on variable geometries and the interaction of different stakeholders, interests and powers. A governance that builds on the initiatives started within the “United Nations system” and leverages the action of the European Union, and knows how to put the priorities and specificities of multiple stakeholders, including the private sector, cities and local communities. This is certainly not an easy process, but the magnitude of the climate threat and the potential contribution of the LULUCF sector to combating the changes taking place require efforts thus far unprecedented in this direction.