With their ability to soak up heat-trapping gases from the atmosphere, forests are front and center in international discussions about slowing climate change. But a growing chorus of researchers says the planet's trees have plenty more to offer the world beyond acting as sinks that inhale carbon.
This point was borne out by a new report presented in New York this week during the Ninth Session of United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF).
Discussions at the meeting will feed into UN talks on the formal forestry agreement taking shape, known as REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, said Jeremy Rayner, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan Graduate School of Public Policy.
"Forest governance, although it covers most of the issues, is very complex and badly coordinated," Rayner told SolveClimate News. "And as a result, it is difficult to find a specific instrument that is forest-related, instead of forest-focused."
By "forest-focused," Rayner is referring to international pacts that narrowly focus on forests as carbon sinks. Most of the well-meaning efforts intended to protect forests, including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the global boycotts of tropical timber, ignore forests' contributions to agriculture, energy, medicine, and the livelihoods of millions of indigenous individuals, Rayner said.
Country Leaders 'Eager' to End Forest Loss
Of course, keeping forests standing is a necessary first step. Worldwide, deforestation is continuing at a rate of about 33 million acres per year, an area roughly the size of Greece or Nicaragua, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Under a global REDD scheme, rich countries would pay poor ones billions of dollars per year to preserve their natural and endangered forests. The program is a win-win, supporters say, since the world's forests absorb billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.
And with deforestation and degraded forested land accounting for an estimated 15 to 20 percent of global CO2 emissions, "country leaders are eager to stop this process to get their hands around the climate problem," Rayner said.
Private companies and investors are already putting money into programs that store carbon in forests.
Current Schemes to Yield 'Disappointing' Results
Rayner chaired a panel brought together by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a group of more than 15,000 scientists in over 110 countries. The panel produced the 172-page report, "Embracing Complexity: Meeting the Challenges of International Forest Governance" that Rayner and others presented in New York on January 31.
The IUFRO report emphasizes that the current top-down approach that focuses entirely on carbon must be expanded to include forest programs that respond to the needs of a country and its local people.
"International approaches that aim to transform forests into storehouses for carbon or for biodiversity, or for some narrow purpose, are inevitably going to produce disappointing results," noted Constance McDermott, a senior fellow at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and a co-author of a report.
In Cancun, UN delegates established a program that added some safeguards into the implementation of REDD, known as REDD-plus. This pact includes conservation, the sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks as part of REDD's goals.
However, even with REDD-plus, the problem with international forest agreements that aim to "solve" climate change is that they oversimplify the very complex problems associated with forest degradation, Rayner said.
The international forestry community has seen the effects of top-down forestry management with the Convention on Biological Diversity, where in some spots local indigenous people were moved away from their land in order to preserve the forest.
"Local communities are often very good stewards of the resources on which they depend," Rayner said.
Will REDD Money Reach the Locals?
Local people manage just an estimated 30 percent of the world's forests, either formally or informally, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Bill Barclay, policy and research director for environmental group Rainforest Action Network, says that the commercial crops — ranging from palm oil to raw materials for biofuels — are the real drivers behind deforestation and degradation. Corporations replace natural forests with rows and rows of monoculture plants, such as palm trees, acacia trees for use in pulp and paper, and soybeans. Trees are also razed to provide grazing land for cattle.
These products generate an international demand for cheap land that destroys natural forests, Barclay told SolveClimate News.
A key challenge for REDD is uncertainty about whether the money generated by the agreement will actually reach the intended programs and people on the ground.
"Most of the places where REDD is going to be implemented have very high levels of corruption," Barclay said. The greenhouse gas trading schemes in Europe have already been hit by scandals involving crime and speculative trading, he noted. "The possibility for gaming this thing is absolutely massive."
The IUFRO report is calling for a new framework, Forests-plus, designed to turn most global initiatives into programs that support and coordinate national and regional efforts on forest protection and management. The scheme envisions limiting international accords to those instances when "a top-down approach is broadly demanded," IUFRO wrote.
Mexico, Nepal Success Stories
Keeping local people in place to manage remote forest areas has been successful, argues Duncan Macqueen of the independent research group, the International Institute for Environment and Development.
In a Dec. 22, 2010, blog post, he writes: "After 100 years of struggle in Sweden, hundreds of thousands of family forest owners not only sustainably manage multi-functional forest landscapes, but also control huge sustainable commercial sawmilling and pulp and paper companies. ... Where clear rights have been granted in countries such as Mexico or Nepal, the impact on both forest protection and local livelihoods is positive."
IUFRO doesn't advocate that negotiators shelve REDD. Instead, the group is urging for national instruments to take a bottom-up approach that starts with regional and national needs and programs that are working.
"Instead of generating grand plans ... we might be better advised to listen and learn from existing efforts, both public and private," McDermott said.