SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt—The U.S. Center at the COP27 climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh hosted a panel Monday focused on ending global deforestation by 2030, but the reality on the ground in the nation’s forests looks quite different. Just hours before the discussion, conservation groups released a report showing that federal agencies are considering multiple logging projects, including on about 370,000 acres with mature and old-growth trees that remove planet-heating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The latest discussions in Egypt came a year after 145 countries, including the United States, signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, pledging to conserve forests and accelerate their restoration to slow global warming. But U.S. plans to log federal lands show it’s easier to make non-binding climate promises than to keep them.
Forests are a crucial part of slowing the buildup of atmospheric greenhouse gases because they have the potential to remove up to one-third of human emissions of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to a 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But recent increase in wildfires, as well as research on forest health, suggest that those calculations may not be accurate. Some stressed and overheated forests could soon emit more carbon than they store.
The panelists at Monday’s session talked about “leveraging investments” and “catalyzing partnerships” to boost a vast global carbon accounting system by which wealthy regions or countries can continue to emit greenhouse gases by paying others to maintain forests that take them out of the atmosphere.
The Paris Agreement recognizes forests as important carbon sinks for such offset programs, said Prakash Kashwan, who researches environmental and climate justice, climate governance and decolonizing conservation at Brandeis University.
“Forests are believed to be among the cheapest sources of carbon offsets,” he said, “though such a characterization is grossly misleading because it doesn’t account for the social and ecological impacts of maintaining forests as a sort of carbon sink. Even so, it doesn’t look like forests can escape the encroachment of carbon markets.”
He said forest-based carbon offsets should generally only be used within national boundaries in countries with good forest management to ensure that the accounting is reliable and transparent.
Forests in the Global South are unreliable sources of greenhouse gas reductions for offsets because of the lack of good management and enforcement, he said, which means that there “is a much greater chance of producing spurious credits,” he said. And in countries in the Southern hemisphere where governments control most of the forests, the odds are high for corruption, he added.
“Most importantly, most forests in the Global South have the presence of Indigenous peoples and other rural populations whose traditional rights in these lands have either not been recognized or, even if legally recognized, those rights are openly flouted by government forestry agencies because of the influx of conservation-related funds, and now carbon offset funds,” he said.
That has led to gross violations of human rights and land rights, he said, noting his own research suggested that “at the least 750 million to 1 billion people are victims of precarious forestland rights.” In another study, he showed that forest restoration prioritization maps are focused on areas with high rates of poverty and lack of democratic institutions. The research shows that the top-down approach “will threaten some robust ecosystems and food security because it assumes that smallholder agriculture is cheap and inefficient, and worth replacing with forests grown for the sake of carbon and biodiversity.”
Forests as Commodities
Commodifying forests as a climate solution is an approach that has failed in the past few decades and is probably doomed to fail in the future, said Jean Su, energy and justice director and senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, part of the Climate Forests coalition that compiled the new report on planned logging projects in the U.S. The coalition is pushing the Biden administration to develop a national rule covering federal lands to protect old growth and mature forests.
“I think what was missing was talk about Indigenous rights, about human rights issues, about the spiritual values and the majesty of forests,” she said. “It very quickly became a market story, that we don’t value forests enough … and so in that way, they’re still trying to commodify forests. That has been the problem with this approach to forest protection, that everything has to be boiled down to a dollar amount. What we need instead are full bans, and enforceable bans, on deforestation, very similar to fossil fuels.”
In 2021, just the tropics lost about 43,000 square miles of forest cover, an area the size of Tennessee, said panelist Craig Hanson, executive vice president for programs at the World Resources Institute. Additionally, in the U.S. wildfires burned across an Indiana-size swath of land, about 35,000 square miles, including some forests being used as carbon offsets by major U.S. corporations. Wildfires in Siberia that year burned up another 72,000 square miles, an area a bit larger than Oklahoma. Altogether, wildfires emitted 6,450 megatons of carbon dioxide in 2021, about equal to total European Union CO2 emissions from fossil fuels that year.
If world leaders want to take their forest pledges seriously, Su said, it’s time to move beyond market-based mechanisms, and beyond using forests as carbon offsets.
“That is a scheme that has never worked to achieve deep decarbonisation,” she said. “The best thing that we can do is ditch these market mechanisms, to stop talking about commodification of forests, and start actual protection. What we’re asking for from a domestic standpoint is, President Biden, if you want to live up to your global pledge, start at home.”
Disconnect Between US Words and Actions
She said there’s a “huge disconnect” between what the Biden administration is saying at COP27 about the U.S. leading on the global conservation pledge, and what they’re doing at home.
“We need Biden’s agencies to actually start becoming aligned with what President Biden is saying,” she said. “Please start at home, at the very least, and stop the logging that’s occurring, breaking up ecosystems and killing carbon sequestration.”
In April, Biden issued an executive order that would “conserve our forests that do so much to protect us,” the president said on Earth Day. “You know, our forests are our planet’s lungs. They literally are recycling and cycling CO2 out of the atmosphere.”
But Su cautioned that all plans to protect forests are dependent on quickly cutting CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. Forest protection policies are “in a very different category from the causal factors of the climate emergency,” she said.
Forests won’t be able to sequester carbon if we keep pumping out the fossil fuels, she said. “They’re looked at in silos as different solutions. But ultimately, the way to save forests is just to stop fossil fuels because they are diminishing our forests and burning them down.”
Dawn Sturdevant Baum, general counsel for the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, which sells carbon credits under California’s sometimes controversial cap and trade program, said the panel’s discussion of using satellites for careful monitoring of forests can help ensure their value for offsets.
The Yurok Tribe is developing its own capacities to make detailed scans of forests with airborne lasers to ensure that they are protected as promised, she said.
“We’re always very concerned about data and owning our own data and controlling who gets to see it because there can be sensitive information, about sacred sites, things that maybe we don’t want widely publicly broadcasted.”
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Baum said she expected more from the panel, but was encouraged that one of the panelists, Milagros Sandoval Diaz, head of the climate directorate in Peru’s ministry for the environment, mentioned the issue of restoring Indigenous land ownership.
“We want our credits to be valuable, so when we do have a sale, we want to know what people are buying is something that is valuable and that we get a good price,” Baum said. The Tribe uses the revenue to buy back land that was taken during the European colonization era and also to fund forest management, she added.
“It’s really wonderful for us to bring our territory back into our control, to be able to use our traditional knowledge … to prevent the massive wildfires by burning the underbrush keeping the forest healthy,” she said. “We’ve done that for millennia and the rest of the world is finally catching on to what we were doing. But we’re facing the effects of climate change. Massive droughts are threatening the Klamath River, which is sort of our lifeblood.”
The Climate Forests coalition has a clear vision for conservation, said Zack Porter, director and co-founder of Standing Trees, which advocates for protecting old forests in the northeastern U.S.
“We are pushing the Forest Service to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, by responding to that executive order that President Biden issued on Earth Day,” he said. The rule would protect all federal forest areas with trees older than 80 years, an age when they start to take on old-growth characteristics and become highly efficient at sequestering carbon.
“New England has a unique role to play, because it’s really second only to the Pacific Northwest in terms of the amount of carbon stored,” he said. “If we simply left these ecosystems alone, then they could do what they do best.”