Why Forests? Why Now? New Developments for the New Year

January 12, 2018

Just over a year ago, we released our book Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change. Thanks to everyone who bought a copy. Following a second print run, a limited number of hard copies are still available from Brookings Institution Press and on Amazon. But to ensure the widest possible distribution, we are now delighted to make the full book available online for free.

Of course, the world hasn’t stood still since we hit “send” on our manuscript in October 2016. The scientific and economic literature on the importance of forests for climate and development continues to grow. More noticeably, near-term politics have shifted in decidedly unhelpful ways, dominated by the new American presidential administration. However, the fundamental messages of our book remain as important and urgent as ever: tropical forests are an undervalued asset for fighting climate change and promoting development, and payment-for-performance finance holds promise as a way for rich countries to partner with developing countries to reduce deforestation.

If we were to write a second edition to Why Forests? Why Now? today we’d have plenty of new material to add. Chapter by chapter, here’s a roundup of a few of the most significant developments of 2017:

New evidence confirms that tropical deforestation is a big part of the climate problem—and tropical forests are an even bigger part of the solution.

In Chapter 2 we described how carbon dioxide emissions from tropical deforestation are a large share of the climate problem and keeping tropical forests standing can be an even larger share of the potential solution. New research is showing how deforestation warms the planet in more ways than just by releasing carbon dioxide: Natalie Mahawold and her colleagues quantified how tropical deforestation affects the climate through methane and nitrous oxide emissions, while Natalie Schultz and her colleagues quantified the effect of deforestation on local temperatures, with daytime heating exceeding nighttime cooling, especially in the tropics. New studies have affirmed the critical role of forest protection in meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement: avoiding deforestation and other land-based climate solutions can contribute more than one-third of the abatement needed to meet a 2 ˚C climate goal, according to Bronson Griscom and his colleagues, and one-quarter of the abatement needed to meet a 1.5 ˚C target, according to Stephanie Roe and her colleagues.

Even more links have emerged between tropical forests and development.

In Chapter 3 we summarized the many pathways by which tropical forests contribute to development goals related to water, energy, agriculture, health, safety, and climate adaptation. In a new review article, David Ellison and his colleagues propose that forests’ cooling effects through regulating atmospheric moisture and rainfall may even exceed their carbon-sequestration benefits. Some intriguing new strands of research are emerging too. Anastassia Marakieva and her colleagues propose that deforestation may augment hurricanes and cyclones by altering atmospheric pressure gradients. And Jesús Olivera and his colleagues found a spatial correlation between hotspots of deforestation and Ebola in West Africa. Watch this space for new evidence from Sebastian Bauhoff and Jonah Busch on deforestation and malaria.

With satellite data, researchers can monitor the impact of forest loss in greater detail than ever.

In Chapter 4 we highlighted incredible advances in satellite monitoring of tropical forests. Alessandro Baccini and his colleagues were the first to measure changes in pan-tropical forest carbon stocks directly, confirming what many previous papers have shown using indirect methods: emissions from deforestation greatly exceed gains from sequestration in growing forests. And NASA’s OCO-2 satellites were able to pin the 2015 spike in global carbon dioxide emissions on drought and heat stress across tropical forests loss during the El Niño-year.

Forests are still the best option for carbon capture and storage.

In Chapter 5 we showed how reducing deforestation can make the global response to climate change cheaper, cooler, and faster. We illustrated how forest protection is far more ready than other carbon-capture-and-storage prospects with a comparison to the ill-fated Kemper “clean coal” plant in Mississippi. After years of delays, cost overruns, and corruption allegations, the Kemper CCS project was finally shuttered in June 2017. The pan-tropical modeling by Jonah Busch and Jens Engelmann that underpinned the book’s estimates of how much deforestation could be reduced where and at what cost was published in Environmental Research Letters in December.

A field trial shows that paying to keep trees standing pays off.

In Chapter 6 we recounted the history of decades of initiatives intended to “make forests worth more alive than dead”—non-timber forest products, bioprospecting, ecotourism, and the like. A new paper by Seema Jayachandran and her colleagues was the first to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of payments for ecosystem services using the gold-standard randomized controlled trial method, finding that emissions could be avoided for $2.60 per ton of carbon dioxide by paying landowners in Uganda to keep trees standing on their property. This adds another strand to a rope of evidence finding that forest protection offers plentiful emission reductions for less than $10/ton.

New research indicates that formalizing indigenous land rights can make a difference in reducing deforestation.

In Chapter 7 we presented approaches that have been shown to stop deforestation, both in Brazil and beyond. These include designating protected areas, recognizing the territories of indigenous peoples, enforcing forest laws, and paying land owners for their forests’ ecosystem services, as well as limiting the destructive potential of roads and clearing for the production of agricultural commodities. Empirical evidence on the effect of formalizing greater land rights for indigenous people is nascent, but that’s starting to change. Allan Blackman and his colleagues showed that awarding land title to indigenous people reduced deforestation in Peru. 

Progress toward deforestation-free commodity supply chains is moving slowly.

In Chapter 8 we described how global demand for commodities produced in the tropics is a key driver of deforestation, and how perverse policies in consumer countries such as biofuel subsidies exacerbate the problem. We also identified “demand-side” policies that could be part of the solution by providing incentives for legal and sustainable production. A 2016 assessment documented slow progress toward achieving corporate targets to get deforestation out of commodity supply chains, and multi-stakeholder coalitions are now focusing their attention on implementation at the scale of subnational jurisdictions.   

The action on REDD+ is now at the country level.

In Chapter 9 we recounted the fraught history of international negotiations on forests, and how the link to climate change shifted a confrontational dynamic to one of cooperation on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). With endorsement of REDD+ in the Paris Agreement, the center of gravity has shifted to country-level implementation in the context of Nationally Determined Contributions toward the goals of the Agreement. More than two dozen countries have now submitted reference levels to the UNFCCC as a step towards eligibility for results-based payments under REDD+, although many are incomplete.

Forest politics remain volatile in Brazil and Indonesia.

In Chapter 10 we analyzed the political economy of forest resource management in developing countries, with a particular focus on Brazil and Indonesia. In both countries, domestic constituencies for forest conservation have continued to struggle against the forces of deforestation-as-usual, while international actors have applied a mixture of carrots and sticks to incentivize reform. In Brazil, an uptick in deforestation in 2016, attributed in part to law enforcement leniency in the midst of a broader political and economic crisis, led to a decrease in performance-based REDD+ payments in accordance with the provisions of its agreement with Norway. In 2016, Indonesia became the first country in the world to obtain the right to issue licenses for the export of legally certified timber to the European Union, reflecting progress in addressing illegal logging. In 2017, government efforts to protect carbon-rich peatlands were dealt a setback when, in the face of industry pressure, the Supreme Court struck down a 2017 ministerial regulation imposing new obligations on holders of fast-growing timber concessions.   

In the US, hopes for action on forests and climate have shifted to non-federal leadership.

In Chapter 11 we focused on the politics of REDD+ finance in rich countries, describing how recognition of reduced tropical deforestation as a cost-effective climate mitigation option layered on top of existing rationales for international cooperation to protect forests, such as conservation of biodiversity. In 2017, support for international cooperation on forests weathered national elections in Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In contrast, the unexpected results of the US 2016 presidential election, and the subsequent announcement of the Trump administration’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, dashed any hopes of stepping up US finance for forests and climate change. However, the abdication of climate leadership at the federal level has injected new energy into non-federal initiatives such as the State of California’s cap-and-trade program, which is now linked to the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and retains the possibility of including international forest offsets in the future.  

The missing piece? It’s still finance.

In Chapter 12 we described how the availability of international finance has fallen far short of the amount needed to constitute meaningful incentives for change in tropical forest countries, and how disbursement of pledged REDD+ funds has been slowed by a process of “aidification” by donor agencies. In 2017, the board of the Green Climate Fund approved a $500 million pilot program for results-based payments for REDD+, while a handful of countries inched their way toward concluding the first Emission Reduction Performance Agreements under the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility’s Carbon Fund. And a report assessing progress toward Goals 8 and 9 of the New York Declaration on Forests revealed the continuing large gap between forest mitigation potential and available funding. So finance remains the missing piece. 

2018 will no doubt be another exciting year for tropical forests, climate, and development. We invite you to start it off right by downloading a free copy of Why Forests? Why Now?


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.