The Green Guardians in the Fight Against Climate Change
Updated: May 9
Twenty years ago, I travelled down the Sekonyer River in Borneo surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. My wife and I spent several days at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park to observe orangutans in the wild – one of the most incredible experiences we’ve ever had. (We found the orangutan in this photo just lounging around when we arrived)
Back then, most conversations around the rainforests focused on the threat they faced from being cleared illegally, which not only presented an environmental threat, but was also destroying one of the few remaining homes for the orangutans.
Today, deforestation continues to be a significant issue but there is an even more urgent global push to protect the world’s forests because of the critical role they play in the fight against climate change.
Forests have long been considered the lungs of our planet. They act as natural carbon sinks, absorbing and storing significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. These complex ecosystems are essential for maintaining a stable climate, supporting a diverse range of plant and animal species, and providing numerous economic, social, and cultural benefits. However, deforestation and forest degradation are threatening these essential ecosystems, contributing to climate change and exacerbating its impacts. Protecting and restoring forests are vital components of any global climate strategy.
Forests as Carbon Sinks
Forests cover about 30% of the Earth's land surface, and they contain more than 80% of the planet's terrestrial biodiversity. They also play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle, acting as carbon sinks by absorbing atmospheric CO2 through the process of photosynthesis. In fact, forests store an estimated 861 gigatons of carbon.
When forests are destroyed or degraded, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect and exacerbating global warming. Deforestation and forest degradation account for nearly 12-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, protecting and restoring forests is a critical component of any effort to mitigate climate change.
Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Forests are home to an extraordinary array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. This biodiversity is essential for maintaining the health and resilience of forest ecosystems, which in turn provide numerous ecosystem services that help to regulate the climate.
These services include water regulation, nutrient cycling, and soil conservation. Forests also help to regulate local and regional climate patterns by influencing temperature and precipitation. For example, the Amazon rainforest generates around 50-80% of its own rainfall through the process of evapotranspiration, a vital process that contributes to the regulation of the Earth's climate system.
Forests also provide important social and economic benefits to human populations. They are a source of food, medicine, and fuel for billions of people worldwide, and they provide livelihoods for millions of individuals and communities. Furthermore, forests have significant cultural and spiritual value for many indigenous and local communities who rely on them for their well-being and identity.
Strategies for Forest Protection and Restoration
There are several strategies that can be employed to protect and restore forests, which are essential components of efforts to tackle climate change.
1. Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation: This is a fairly obvious one, but by enforcing stricter regulations on land-use changes, such as logging and agricultural expansion, countries can reduce deforestation and forest degradation. This requires strong political commitment, stakeholder engagement, and effective law enforcement.
2. Reforestation and Afforestation: Planting new forests (afforestation) and restoring degraded forests (reforestation) can help to increase the amount of carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere, thereby mitigating climate change.
3. Forest Landscape Restoration: This approach aims to restore the ecological, social, and economic functions of forests, rather than simply reforesting or afforesting an area. It involves working with local communities, governments, and other stakeholders to develop and implement integrated land-use plans that balance the competing demands on forest resources.
4. Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES): PES schemes offer financial incentives to landowners and communities to protect, restore, or sustainably manage their forests. These payments can help to compensate for the opportunity costs of not converting forest land to other uses, such as agriculture.