Guest Article No. 16 - Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Forests and Climate Change: Bridging the Gaps

By Jan L. McAlpine, Director, United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) Secretariat

Jan L. McAlpine, Director, United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) Secretariat
Jan L. McAlpine
For thousands of years, the single most recognized value and economic contribution from forests was wood: fuel wood, timber, logs. Forests provided a source for material to create shelter, warmth and energy to cook, they provided the material for furniture, housing, ships and bridges. But astoundingly, to those of us who have worked with forests for our whole lives, in recent months the world's attention has finally turned to forests – but this time for another value: forests as one of the single largest sectors that can advance climate change objectives.

Forests’ capacity to sequester carbon as part of the growth process constitute a sink that reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thereby helps in the mitigation of climate change due to global warming. However, loss of forest causes the release of greenhouse gases that were previously sequestered in the forest sink. In 2004, deforestation caused the release of approximately 8.5 Gt of carbon dioxide, mostly from deforestation. As advocates for utilizing forests for climate change mitigation have rightly pointed out, deforestation contributes on average at least 17.4% of the human-generated carbon dioxide emissions, reduction of which would automatically reduce emissions. Forest-based carbon exceeds the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. Forest ecosystems contained 638 Gt of carbon in 2005, with half (321 Gt) found in forest biomass and deadwood. Deforestation accounts for 35% of carbon emissions in developing countries and 65% in least developed countries. On the other hand, climate change is significantly affecting forests through changes in physiology, structure, species composition and health, largely due to changes in temperature and rainfall.

Like all new acolytes, suddenly aware of an enlightened understanding, there are those who believe that this single essential value in forests is so significant that financing, multilateral policy and unified action should be focused entirely on ensuring that this value of forests for climate should be at the center of all actions related to forests. Pull up the drawbridge, bring out the cannons, and fasten your seatbelts: this is the big one!

Not so fast. It is time to remind ourselves that forests provide far more than carbon or even timber values. Forests provide the homes and livelihoods to 1.6 billion people. They protect 80% of the world's biodiversity, they are the watershed source of most of the clean water upon which all life depends. So there are far more values to be integrated and calculated in this complex ecosystem than we have yet to understand.

The United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) was built on an extensive intergovernmental process that began soon after Rio’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development and established in 2000 to cover the “full suite” of forest issues for all types of forests, from complete protection and conservation of some forests on one end of the spectrum to sustainable use of forests and their resources on the other end – sustainable forest management. The UNFF is a unique intergovernmental policy forum that has a comprehensive 360 degree view of sustainable forest management, with universal membership of all 192 member States of the United Nations. It also invited the creation of an unprecedented cooperation – the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, which includes 14 multilateral international agreements and organizations and focuses on cooperative work in support of the UNFF’s objectives.

In 2007, the Forum adopted the first-ever non-legally binding instrument on all types of forests (the forest instrument), which provides a framework within which to address forest matters.
It is quite clear that no single multilateral process, agreement or organization can fill all the gaps – including those between forests and climate change. I use the analogy of the Cuckoo Bird, a bird that lays its egg in the nest of another bird species, leaving that “adoptive parent” to raise its young – usually at the expense of the lives of the adoptive siblings. Similarly, neither the climate change or forest communities can hand over their tasks and responsibilities when it comes to developing long-term solutions that combat climate change or support sustainably managed forests. Just as climate and forests are inextricably linked, their policies and programmes must be made to be mutually reinforcing and supportive.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming climate change conference in Copenhagen, the challenge is to develop a comprehensive framework that includes both forest-based climate change mitigation and adaptation measures while addressing the other important values forests. The recently concluded eighth session of UNFF (UNFF8) identified a clear gap in financing for forests in certain special sets of thematically-related countries – these include small island developing States, low forest-cover countries and high forest cover, low deforestation countries. They are under threat from climate change, but fall outside of the scope of current climate change financing. As a result of the UNFF8 discussions, the UNFF Secretariat, together with the Collaborative Partnership on Forest partners, in particular, the Secretariats of the Global Environment Facility and the Convention to Combat Desertification will be setting out to bridge these gaps. In so doing, we will no doubt discover other challenges – but let’s start by lowering the drawbridge and getting out there to do the work.
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