Severe and worsening wildfires, floods, and storms have brought climate change to the doorsteps of millions of U.S. households and the nation’s financial system, forcing the crisis to the forefront of the international policy agenda. Although action is long overdue, there has been little political will to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, transition the global economy away from fossil fuels, and tackle the biodiversity crisis that is concurrent with—and linked to—climate change.1 While scientists agree that the world must limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, 2021 global pledges still fall short of that benchmark. An analysis released2 during the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November warned that current country targets would condemn the world to a 2.4 degree Celsius increase in global temperature. In 2022, world leaders must continue to set ambitious goals while translating past pledges into immediate action.
One tool that gained steam at COP26 is forest conservation and restoration, which countries can use to help achieve their emissions reduction goals. Increased take-up of this tool indicates growing awareness that human actions determine whether forests act as carbon sinks or carbon sources. While forests naturally emit carbon, they are currently a net carbon sink: Between 2001 and 2019, global forests absorbed 7.6 billion metric tons3 of carbon dioxide per year. Simply put, conserving forests captures carbon, while converting forests to other land uses releases carbon into the air. Since 2015, the rate of global deforestation—primarily driven by agricultural expansion—has been approximately 10 million hectares per year,4 equivalent to 38,600 square miles, or an area slightly smaller than the state of Virginia. Forest loss is particularly dire in tropical regions, which are also home to the vast majority of terrestrial biodiversity.5 Current rates of deforestation, fire, and other disturbances may soon lead to the Amazon rainforest becoming a net carbon source, rather than a sink.6
Forest fires driven by climate change—as well as historic mismanagement of forests that has steadily undermined ecosystem integrity and resilience—also release stored carbon. In 2020, California wildfires emitted 91 million metric tons of carbon dioxide7—30 million more than the state’s annual power production emissions. Meanwhile, global wildfires in 2021 resulted in 1.76 billion tons of carbon emitted8—equivalent to the emissions of 444 coal-fired power plants in one year.9 As climate change worsens, wildfires are expected to become more frequent and severe,10 creating a feedback loop11 that threatens to derail climate and conservation gains and put countless livelihoods at risk.
Forests are also intrinsically connected to Indigenous peoples and local communities, and any policy that separates forests from these communities has the potential to erase important voices and contribute to the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous peoples.
Clearly, the world cannot tackle the climate crisis without halting and reversing deforestation. But this task is not as simple as increasing the footprint of forests. The climate mitigation gains sought through forests depend on the biodiversity and overall ecological integrity of the forest ecosystem as a whole, as well as concurrent emissions reductions across sectors. Forests are also intrinsically connected to Indigenous peoples and local communities, and any policy that separates forests from these communities has the potential to erase important voices and contribute to the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous peoples. Decision-makers must approach forest pledges not just through the lens of carbon storage but also holistically as nature-based solutions. As the Biden administration works to implement national and international forest pledges, it must take several key actions to secure the climate benefits that forests can provide.
The United States’ current forest commitments
In the past year, the Biden-Harris administration signaled its intention to address deforestation through international and domestic commitments. At COP26, the United States signed on to the following joint pledges that clearly value forests, particularly in tropical regions, for their mitigation potential:
- Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use,12 spearheaded by the United Kingdom, commits to halting and reversing global forest loss by 2030 through conserving and restoring forests, promoting practices that support sustainable development and reduce vulnerability, and reaffirming international financial commitments. More than 140 nations currently endorse the declaration.
- The Global Forest Finance Pledge13 backs up the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration, committing $19.2 billion to ending deforestation. Most of this financing comes from preexisting public financial commitments, with the remainder from private companies and philanthropies.
- Congo Basin Joint Donor Statement14 focuses on the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest region. Twelve countries and the Bezos Earth Fund committed an initial $1.5 billion from 2021 to 2025 to protect forests, peatlands, and other globally significant carbon stores in the Congo Basin.
- Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ (IPLC) Tenure Joint Donor Statement,15 endorsed by a handful of nations and philanthropies, recognizes the role IPLCs play in preserving tropical forests and the limited rights and protections afforded to these communities. The statement “welcomes,” rather than calls for, protecting IPLC land and resource rights. Signatories pledged $1.7 billion to support forest tenure rights and recognition.
The United States also announced its Plan to Conserve Global Forests: Critical Carbon Sinks,16 which supports goals to halt global forest loss and restore at least 200 million hectares by 2030, using a whole-of-government approach to engage with global stakeholders and communities. Along with domestic actions to restore protections for the Tongass National Forest17 and conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030,18 which would expand the nation’s natural carbon sink,19 these pledges show that the administration understands that deforestation and improperly managed forests contribute to the climate crisis.
The value of forests beyond carbon metrics
Forests can deliver more than mitigation benefits: They can help bridge the gap between climate change and biodiversity extinction, the convergent human-caused crises of our time. Trees should not simply be thought of as carbon sticks or another metric that nations can use on the net-zero balance sheet. Scientists estimate that 80 percent of terrestrial plants and animals live in forests,20 which in turn directly support the lives and livelihoods of more than 1.6 billion people.21 Done correctly, forest conservation is a nature-based solution—an umbrella term for actions that protect, restore, and sustainably manage natural systems. By definition, nature-based solutions must provide benefits for human communities while also maintaining or enhancing biodiversity and ecological integrity.22
Nature-based solutions must provide benefits for human communities while also maintaining or enhancing biodiversity and ecological integrity.
Climate change is correctly understood as an existential crisis, but biodiversity loss is similarly catastrophic. Biodiversity—the diversity of life on earth23—underpins human existence. It provides priceless and countless ecosystem services, including creating oxygen through the respiration of terrestrial and marine organisms; supporting humanity’s food systems, both directly through fish and livestock and indirectly through soil nutrients and pollination services; and providing life-saving medicines.24 As Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta notes in his work The Economics of Biodiversity, “From a financial perspective, just as diversity within a portfolio of financial assets reduces risk and uncertainty, so biodiversity increases Nature’s resilience to shocks, and thereby reduces risks to the ecosystem services on which we rely.”25 Aside from its services to humankind, biodiversity holds inherent, intrinsic value that is not captured in stock portfolios or bottom lines.
But biodiversity is disappearing at a rate faster than at any point since the disappearance of the dinosaurs, or 1,000 times higher than before humans existed.26 This has resulted in an extinction crisis that is entirely of our own making—indeed, a sixth mass extinction that in part underpins what scientists define as the anthropocene, a new geologic epoch characterized by humans’ fundamental impact on the Earth. These drivers of biodiversity loss include habitat destruction and degradation, agricultural expansion, pollution, overexploitation, and climate change. Globally, scientists estimate that 1 million species currently face extinction and 25 percent of species alive today are threatened with extinction. Species loss severs the many interconnected relationships that hold together the ecosystems on which humans rely, reducing the ability of nature to provide critical benefits now and limiting options in the future.27
In light of the extinction crisis, forest management must prioritize biodiversity gains along with carbon benefits to meet the definition of a nature-based solution and secure long-term benefits for society. It is also critical that policymakers center actions that support or restore the ecological integrity of ecosystems, which means following the best available science and investing at scale. There are clear signs that this scale can be quite large: Scientists—including the man who coined the term “biodiversity,” Thomas Lovejoy28—warn that deforestation in the Amazon region is pushing the world’s largest rainforest perilously close to a tipping point that will undermine its ability to create the weather systems that sustain it. This tipping point would result in the Amazon becoming a savannah-like scrubland,29 not only eliminating one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, but also generating far-reaching impacts on global weather systems and human communities. Avoiding this scenario and its potentially catastrophic global ramifications requires significant, concerted action.
Global political challenges to forest climate action
There are political and logistical difficulties to realizing the goal of these global forest pledges. Under the Bolsonaro presidency, Brazil has seen increasing rates of deforestation,30 hostile and unlawful treatment of Indigenous peoples,31 and weakening of environmental protection laws.32 These actions indicate that his government is unlikely to take the necessary steps to protect the Amazon.33 Indonesia, meanwhile, signed but almost immediately pulled back from the Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, with the country’s environment minister saying that halting deforestation cannot come at the expense of economic development.34
This does not mean, however, that only large tracts of forests deserve to be protected. Smaller forests provide important refuge and corridors for biodiversity in an increasingly fragmented landscape, and biodiversity provides adaptation benefits for human communities at the local level. For example, many communities in the Global South that are particularly vulnerable to climate risks are highly and directly reliant on nature for their livelihoods;35 by some estimates, 90 percent of people living in extreme poverty around the world are dependent on forests.36 This figure underscores that forest-based climate actions must meet the core principles of nature-based solutions; in fact, forest interventions that do not support biodiversity gains can be maladaptive in the long term.37
Nature-based solutions are most effective when they are designed to provide long-term benefits in addition to carbon sequestration; however, increasing greenhouse gas emissions ultimately limits the utility of nature-based solutions.38 Therefore, in the context of forest conservation, climate mitigation and biodiversity conservation are mutually reinforcing goals with numerous overlapping policy interventions—and policymakers must look beyond carbon metrics to measure success.
How to secure mitigation and conservation gains
U.S. national plans and COP26 forest pledges can support ecological integrity, conferring important climate and resilience benefits to humans and nature. To secure the full range of benefits from these pledges, the Biden-Harris administration should consider the four steps outlined below.
Rethink metrics of success
Measuring forest protection through acres protected, dollars appropriated, or carbon sequestered does not adequately capture the scope of climate benefits that ecologically intact forests provide. These approaches also risk co-opting nature-based solutions for carbon offset projects that do not provide biodiversity and adaptation benefits and can ultimately undermine the projects’ intended climate gains.39 For example, prioritizing sequestration in restoration projects can lead to fast-growing or nonnative monocultures, which provide minimal adaptation benefits and actually reduce biodiversity.
The United States should prioritize protecting primary forests as well as restoring forests to connect fragmented landscapes, which it can do by leveraging assistance programs and multilateral development banks to deliver integrated climate and biodiversity outcomes. Policymakers should also measure success through social factors and metrics that recognize protection of at-risk communities, respect land rights, and address nature crimes (see below). Lastly, the Biden-Harris administration and agency staff should consider adaptation gains as a necessary outcome of forest conservation and restoration in order to help ensure that mitigation measures do not become maladaptive in the future.40 Admittedly, however, there remain several challenges in defining indicators that can measure the success of nature-based solutions and adaptation progress generally.41
Address supply-side drivers of deforestation
Expanding agricultural production and commodity use are drivers of both legal and illegal deforestation.42 The Biden-Harris administration should take actions to address this problem through trade, enforcement, financial, and procurement mechanisms. These include supporting legislation such as the bipartisan FOREST Act,43 which takes a whole-of-government approach to restricting key commodities from being produced on illegally deforested land. Coordination with the European Union44 and United Kingdom45 on their deforestation policies, which also addresses deforestation-driven commodities, can help further move the global market away from these products. In addition, the administration should enhance the ability of relevant agencies to enforce the Lacey Act,46 which combats illegal plant and wildlife trade, and take additional measures to address the corruption and crime associated with illegal deforestation.
For example, the administration should increase supply chain traceability, transparency, and accountability. Including deforestation, biodiversity loss, and human rights, along with climate change,47 in financial regulations can further address deforestation from a market perspective while helping preserve the ecosystem services on which the global economy relies. Lastly, the federal government should leverage its purchasing power to reduce deforestation, ensuring that federal procurement does not support unsustainably sourced commodities, materials, or products.
Prioritize enhanced and ongoing direct engagement with international IPLCs
The Biden-Harris administration has taken historic steps to incorporate the considerations of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Pacific Islanders into its climate agenda, but international climate justice policies and actions fall short of the president’s commitment to domestic climate justice in Justice40.48 The joint tenure statement on Indigenous peoples and local communities announced at COP26 was only initially endorsed by the United States, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The United States should encourage more countries to support this pledge.
The United States should also expand its own support by conditioning foreign aid on the removal of laws harmful to IPLCs, developing initiatives to address the human rights crises facing IPLCs, and dedicating financing and capacity building to IPLCs pursuing natural climate solutions that prioritize the link between biodiversity and climate change. Furthermore, the administration must hold regular local and regional consultations with IPLC groups, tribal nations, and/or their representatives. International climate justice should be a front-line climate strategy, not an afterthought. Recognizing and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples—and holding entities that perpetuate violence against IPLCs accountable—is critical to achieving global climate goals.
Fill vacant U.S. agency positions by the end of fiscal year 2022
The U.S. government experienced a significant brain drain during the Trump administration, as career officials retired or otherwise left federal employment, taking with them decades of expertise and institutional knowledge. To better achieve an ambitious whole-of-government approach to climate change, the Biden-Harris administration must prioritize filling these vacant roles, particularly within the U.S. Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and State, among others. Doing this would make executive actions such as the Plan to Conserve Global Forests durable across future administrations. Additionally, hiring staff with expertise on the intersections among climate, finance, corruption, and commodity trading can help agencies take aim at the supply-side drivers of forest loss.
Climate impacts continue to worsen globally. Last year, 200 people in Europe were killed by historic floods linked to climate change,49 and July 2021 was Earth’s hottest month on record.50 Within the United States, almost half of Americans live in counties that experienced climate disasters in 2021,51 with the resulting damages amounting to more than $145 billion.52 Compounding this, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose last year,53 moving the 2050 net-zero target even further away.54 The Biden-Harris administration and international leaders need to use every tool available to mitigate climate change, including halting and reversing deforestation. While the sequestration benefits of forest conservation—and nature-based solutions generally—are not a substitute for the rapid and necessary phaseout of fossil fuel use,55 the biodiversity and adaptation benefits these interventions confer are critical to a comprehensive climate response.
Forests provide life-giving ecosystem services to communities around the world and play a unique role in the climate crisis. They can be either a carbon sink or source, and the loss of forests has the potential to destroy livelihoods and lives. The Biden-Harris administration must take steps to ensure that its forest-based climate interventions fulfill their promise as nature-based solutions by strengthening ecological integrity and conserving biodiversity.