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UN gives mixed grades for forest loss reversal

27 April 2021 Keiron Greenhalgh

Asia, Europe, and Oceania appear to be on track to reverse forest cover losses, but Africa and South America are still losing forest area, according to a UN evaluation of the globe's afforestation and deforestation efforts and their impact on global warming.

As part of efforts to implement the intergovernmental organization's Strategic Plan for Forests 2030 (SPF), the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs said in the evaluation issued 26 April that climate change-linked damage is hampering work to meet the first of six SPF goals, the first of which is to reverse the loss of forest cover.

"Drastically reducing deforestation and systematically restoring forests and other ecosystems is the single largest nature-based opportunity for climate mitigation," UN Secretary General António Guterres said in the evaluation, the "Global Forest Goals Report 2021."

Forests cover 31% of the Earth's land mass, or more than 4 billion hectares, according to the report, but some 10 million hectares of forest disappear each year. Forest ecosystems are the largest terrestrial carbon sink, absorbing roughly 2 billion mt of CO2-equivalent a year. For context, global CO2-equivalent emissions in 2020 were estimated to total 35.9 billion mt, according to the UN-affiliated Carbon Monitor Programme.

The SPF was adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 2017 to sustainably manage forests and trees outside forests, and to halt deforestation and forest degradation.

Between 2010 and 2020, the global forested area fell by 1.2%, with declines concentrated in Africa and South America, according to the new report. Between 2015 and 2020, total forest expansion by afforestation or natural expansion was 4.7 million hectares per year, with Asia registering the largest expansion, it said.

Almost all developing countries identified a lack of resources, especially financial, as a major obstacle to achieving a number of the six goals, according to responses collated for the report. And at least 12 countries highlighted problems accessing forest financing from multilateral donor organizations because of cumbersome criteria and procedural requirements. They and other countries said the private sector lacked sufficient incentives to invest in activities that would support the SPF goals.

LEAF Coalition

However, less than a week before the report was released, some financial support for forest protection -- from both governments in developed nations and the private sector -- emerged.

Last week saw the launch of the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest (LEAF) Coalition. LEAF is a public-private initiative designed to accelerate climate action by providing "results-based finance" to countries committed to protecting their tropical forests.

The LEAF initiative aims to raise up at least $1 billion in financing annually to support emissions reductions from tropical and subtropical forest countries, which they hope will reduce and then end deforestation.

LEAF was launched by the governments of Norway, the UK, the US, and companies such as Amazon, Airbnb, Bayer, GSK, Nestlé, and Unilever.

The initial backers expect to add more countries and companies to their venture "in the months ahead." The final list of supporters and the total financial backing will be revealed when emissions reduction purchase agreements are signed with tropical forest countries "by the end of the year," LEAF said in a statement.

Biden invests at home too

The US loses 1 million acres a year of forested land to development, Eve Boyce, Open Space Institute project manager, said during an Atlantic Council Global Energy Center webinar held a couple of days in advance of the Leaders Summit on Climate convened by President Joe Biden.

Danielle Atkins, owner of US forestry and land management consultancy Land & Ladies, told the same webinar that there was not a lot of science available on which trees are better for carbon markets.

There's still a lot of research and information needed on where trees are sequestering carbon the most, said Boyce, adding that "the science is still evolving."

However, "nature is the original carbon capture machine," said Chris Barnard, American Conservation Coalition policy director, told webinar attendees.

Funding for nature-based solutions (NBS) such as protection of forests is on the up domestically under the Biden administration though.

Over $700 million/year in NBS funding was announced by the US Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior 22 April, nearly half of that through the Conservation Reserve Program, which seeks to preserve topsoil, sequester carbon, and reduce nitrogen runoff by paying farmers to stop cultivating crops on environmentally sensitive land.

National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, the head of Biden's climate task force, also told Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to form an interagency working group to address the needs of drought-impacted communities. The White House said in a statement that the working group will also explore opportunities to improve US resilience to droughts and other severe climate impacts.

Biden committed to protect 30% of the US' land and waters by 2030 during his first week in office. At the same time, he announced the climate summit. In the opening session of the summit on 22 April, Biden committed to reducing US GHG emissions by 50-52% compared with 2005 levels by 2030, though his plan at this point does not identify how much carbon reduction would come from forest protection.

Canadian budget also offers support

And across the US' northern border, Canada is also investing in NBS.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson told the climate summit 22 April that the fiscal 2021-2022 federal Canadian budget includes "a historic" C$4.1 billion ($3.3 billion) for nature protection, which means the country will be able to achieve its goal of protecting 25% of its lands and oceans by 2025, and will be well set to meet its 30% by 2030 target.

The funds, he said, will, in part, support the creation of new national wildlife areas, Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, and the expansion of Canada's Indigenous Guardians programs as well as building on commitments to protect species at risk and engage in ecological restoration to restore biodiversity and tackle climate change.

"Nature is our best ally in the fight against this crisis," said Wilkinson, adding that protecting nature "is the first, most effective, and lowest cost" NBS.


As the UN monitors forest coverage, Topher White, Rainforest Connection CEO, is working on the "next generation of ecological study" as conservationists seek to halt illegal logging and deforestation in real-time.

White puts listening devices -- often old smartphones, what he calls "rainforest guardians" -- in treetops to track illegal logging. The phones use machine learning to identify sounds and are solar powered. The solar panels protect the listening device from the moisture and precipitation so prevalent in rainforests.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can pick out sounds human ears cannot and deal with large amounts of sound at one time, White told the FP Virtual Climate Summit 27 April in a recorded message. He couldn't join the discussion live because he was on a trip to the Brazilian Amazon.

White likened the use of AI in this fashion to the discovery of the microscope, discovering worlds humankind couldn't see and never knew were there.

The data is preserved in the cloud for posterity, according to White. The Rainforest Connection data collection and storage program is one of the latest in a long line of such projects. Global data collection on the world's forests dates back to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN completing its first assessment of the world's forest resources in 1948.

Posted 27 April 2021 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Senior Editor


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