In addition to moving from an economy powered predominantly by fossil fuels to one powered by clean energy, an important piece of the climate change mitigation puzzle is arresting deforestation. Some estimates put the total contribution to climate mitigation of stopping deforestation and continuing reforestation as high as 31 percent, and all scenarios limiting warming to below 2-degrees include halting deforestation. By pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and into vegetation, forests—together with oceans—form a natural buffer against climate change. When carbon-rich tropical forests are burned and cleared, it poses a triple threat to climate stability. It stops the net flow of carbon from the atmosphere into the forests, releasing the stock of carbon that has accumulated in the forests over many years, and makes way for high-emissions land uses, like agriculture and mining.
Forests are not only important from an emissions perspective, they also provide other critical ecosystem services: water filtration, flood and erosion control, and wild products to support local community livelihoods. Skoll Awardees and their partners strive to ensure that forests remain more valuable when preserved than when cleared. They empower sustainable land management by indigenous communities supported by market forces and powerful data to document progress.
Partnering with governments, the private sector and civil society, Forest Trends, a 2010 Skoll Awardee, operates 8 distinct programs all oriented to creating, tracking, and promoting the advancement of markets, financial mechanisms, and investments to secure greater protection of forest, water and biodiversity resources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by land conversion and forest destruction. Michael Jenkins, President and CEO of Forest Trends, outlines three key challenges for mitigating climate change in the land use and forests sector:
Forest Trends’ Communities Initiative has worked for 15 years with several indigenous communities in the Amazon to secure tenure rights, develop, and use Life Plans–documents that lay out a vision for future governance of these peoples’ homelands that promotes conservation and community well-being–as a pathway toward greater legal and financial self-sustainability. “We work with these communities to provide access to new markets and new sources of revenue to ensure that these natural stewards of the forest are enabled and supported to continue to thrive,” says Jenkins. “We worked with the Surui community to create the first indigenous-owned and run REDD program, securing carbon finance revenue for this community, supporting its efforts to protect their local forests.”
Through its analyses, Forest Trends also brings transparency and accountability to governments participating in REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and the growing number of companies committing to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. For example, given that commercial agriculture drives at least two-thirds of tropical deforestation, Forest Trends’ Supply Change platform researches supply chain efforts of over 1,200 companies with some involvement with one or more of the major forest-damaging commodities: palm, soy, cattle, and timber/pulp. This includes tracking 460 companies that have made one or more commitments to sustainable production or low- or zero-deforestation for these commodities, and another 270 companies exposed without a public commitment.
“Supply Change works closely with 12 core strategic partners to track the implementation and impact of these company commitments,” said Jenkins. “This effort tracks the steps by the companies (either toward implementing their commitments or, for some, retraction from their commitment), changes in procurement practices, development of sustainable supply, and ultimate impact on forests.”
Imazon, a 2010 Skoll Awardee based in Brazil, takes a complementary approach by developing reliable, near real-time satellite imagery of Amazon forests to identify and alert civil society, media, government agencies, and public prosecutors to pending threats of deforestation. In Brazil, home to roughly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest, emissions from the land use change and forests sector were by far the largest contributor to net greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. To reach its 37 percent national emissions reduction target (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, Brazil committed to achieving zero illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, reforesting 12 million hectares of forest, and enhancing sustainable native forest management systems by 2030. Addressing emissions from agriculture and livestock will also be critical.
Imazon has formed a range of cross-sectoral partnerships to scale its work, honing its role as a neutral provider of quality, open-source data and analysis and a driver of behavior change. Imazon supported the government of Pará in launching and implementing a Green Municipalities Program and a Rural Landowner Registry to track ownership, land uses, and boundaries of rural properties. Together with timely deforestation data and alerts, the registry created a basis for enforcement of anti-deforestation policies. Since the program began in 2011, three-quarters of rural land in Pará was registered, more than 100 municipalities participate, and Imazon is advising other Brazilian states and tropical countries on replication.
“This puts pressure on the government to carry out field inspections against deforesters. The combination of satellite images with the geographical limits of rural properties, possibly thanks to the Environmental Registry of rural properties, has increased transparency and was fundamental for the drastic reduction in deforestation in the Amazon”. Brazil achieved an 80 percent decline in deforestation from 2004-2013, fueled by improved transparency, civil society engagement, international pressure, and a voluntary moratorium on forest clearing by the soy industry.
Deforestation rates have begun to creep up again in the state of Pará and nationally in Brazil since 2014, however. Illegal conversion of land from forests to agriculture, logging, land grabbing, and lax enforcement of existing laws–like Brazil’s Forest Code–threaten hard-earned progress. “The main vector of increased deforestation in Pará has been land speculation,” says Verissimo. “That is, the invasion and deforestation of public forests. A positive result was the reduction of almost one third in deforestation in Pará in the last year (August 2016-July 2017). However, it is clear that deforestation in Pará is still far from reaching the government’s target for 2020 of around 1,200 km2 / year. In the last five years, deforestation has ranged from 1,700 km / year in the best year to 3,000 km2 / year in the worst year).”
New deforestation hot spots are also emerging in areas of Brazil outside the Amazon biome, such as in the biodiversity-rich, tropical savanna (Cerrado biome). In the current socio-political context of Brazil, Imazon continues to innovate, extending its mapping approach to characterize land use across Brazil’s biomes via the MapBiomas partnership with universities, NGOs and technology companies, beginning to replicate its deforestation alerts system in Brazil and beyond, and developing solutions for sustainable agriculture.