Forest of Gede Pangrango. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

To survive in a changing climate, we must look to forests

Forests are widely recognized for storing carbon, making them vital to achieving climate action, but they do much more than that.

By Tiina Vähänen, Deputy Director, Forestry Division, and Amy Duchelle, Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

History shows that in times of crisis, human beings can rapidly learn to think and do things in new and better ways.

Now is one of those times. The world is facing an existential crisis due to climate change, and we must learn to protect, restore, and manage natural ecosystems sustainably to help us to adapt and thrive.

How we adapt to climate change is a key part of this month’s Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP27) agenda and will increasingly dominate global debate as the window of opportunity for keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C closes.

Yet adaptation strategies have tended to focus on technological fixes instead of those that nature can provide.

Forests and trees are widely recognized for their potential to mitigate the effects of climate change by storing carbon, making them vital to achieving SDG 13 (climate action).

But forests do much more than that.

Forests are as crucial to ensuring our water supplies as they are to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. They regulate rainfall, stabilize local climates, and protect coastal land from erosion.

They also provide food, fuel, timber, and animal fodder and reduce the risks and impacts of extreme weather on local communities.

Forests and trees can provide a life support system for millions of people around the world. That function will become increasingly important as temperatures rise and weather becomes more volatile.

It is time to invest in forests and trees – and the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who manage them – as a key part of our strategy for adapting to climate change and coping with ever increasing risks and unpredictability.

Protecting, restoring, and managing forests sustainably must be prioritized and funded as a vital part of national adaptation and resilience policies, and supported by the international community.

Part of this must be a strategy to help forests and trees themselves to adapt to the increasing risks they face from climate change in the form of wildfires, pests, and disease outbreaks and drought. We must work with local communities to develop innovative ways to manage forests and trees in anticipation of these risks.

Investing in forests and trees in this way could reduce climate-related risks and negative impacts on human life. This would also preserve the power of forests to continue to act as carbon sinks.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) have worked with leading experts to draw up ten principles to guide decision makers on using forests and trees to promote transformational adaptation, which are illustrated through case studies in a new FAO report. One of these guiding principles focuses on policy integration – or linking forest and tree management to other policies that address climate-related risks.

This is illustrated in the report by how Colombia – a country where half of the forests are in Indigenous territories – promotes community forestry as a way to meet adaptation and mitigation goals. Finance generated through Colombia’s efforts to reduce deforestation is used to strengthen community forestry organizations, help them access markets for their products, and improve local forest monitoring. This also enables those who protect and manage the country’s forests to improve their capacity to adapt to climate change.

Around the world, Indigenous Peoples and local communities have the knowledge and the experience to become the agents of change that will help humanity thrive in the face of extraordinary adversity. It is clear that, with the right support, community forest enterprises can thrive, degraded landscapes can be restored, and traditional rights to forests and trees can be secured, and forests can be protected.

Such locally led adaptation strategies are essential to supporting livelihoods and resilient forests in a changing world.

Note: This article was first published by the IISD SDG Knowledge Hub.

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