WWF on the International Year of Forests: It’s time to turn a new leaf

19 July 2011

This year's celebration of the United Nations' International Year of Forests has cast a spotlight on forests  across the world. But while the festivities offer some much needed attention for a sector facing significant adversity, the occasion should be seen as an opportunity to go beyond the fanfare.

It is time the world recognised the true value and crucial role of forests as a cornerstone to building a future world where humanity is living within the Earth's ecological limits and sharing its resources more equitably.

In addition to observing International Year of Forests, 2011 also marks WWF's fiftieth anniversary. WWF is proud that forests have been at the heart of its work for half a century. But while there have been many successes, the work to save forests is not over. In many frontier regions, sensitive woodlands continue to be under threat, despite conservation and restoration efforts.

ZNDD - A global target

WWF is proposing that policymakers and businesses unite around a goal of "zero net deforestation and forest degradation" (ZNDD) by 2020. This target clearly illustrates the scale and urgency of action needed to avoid runaway climate change and curb biodiversity loss. Successfully achieving the 2020 target would see the forest sector contributing to an early peak and decline in greenhouse gas emissions, and an end to the habitat loss that endangers iconic species, such as tigers.

Because zero net deforestation and forest degradation means no overall loss of forest area or forest quality, a new monoculture plantation will not offset the loss of primary natural forest. The target requires the loss of natural or semi-natural forest to be reduced to near zero - down from the current 13 million hectares a year, and held at that level indefinitely.

To this end, WWF is running the Living Forests Campaign to bring together partners, policymakers, and business to address the many drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, and to challenge them to support the ZNDD target.

But a target of near zero forest loss presents several challenges. For example, how do we meet the world's demand for timber, pulp and paper while protecting forests for wildlife and traditional livelihoods? Turning to climate change, can carbon markets reduce emissions and simultaneously generate economic benefits? And as population grows, how much land will be needed to feed the world? These are tough questions that require concrete answers.

The Living Forests Report and Model

WWF's Living Forests Report explores opportunities to shift to a new model of sustainable forestry, farming, and consumption that will enable the human population to live within the earth's carrying capacity.

The report assumes that forests can only contribute their full potential, in terms of ecosystem services and as sources of wood and other renewable resources, if forest loss and degradation are stopped. It thus discusses key questions on achieving near zero forest loss and maintaining it over time - how to produce more with less land, water, and pollution as population grows and incomes rise; how limiting the land available for agriculture affects food prices; how diet and lifestyle shifts can help reduce demand for commodities that impact forests; whether 100 percent renewable energy be achieved without deforestation; and if deforestation can be halted while safeguarding rural people's livelihoods.

WWF developed the Living Forests Model, with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), an Austria-based research centre. The model, which forms the basis of the Living Forests Report, allows for the exploration of various global land-use scenarios coupled with the effect of forces such as population growth and consumer demand.

The model describes possible consequences of forest conservation measures on key areas such as food production, climate change, biodiversity, commodity prices, and economic development.

Forests can be conserved

The first chapter of the Living Forests Report states that the dual imperatives of halting forest loss and degradation and meeting global demand for food, materials, and energy pose both challenges and business opportunities for the forest products sector. Forest products are renewable and, when sourced from well-managed natural forests and plantations, tend to have a smaller footprint than fossil fuel-intensive alternatives like steel, concrete, and plastics .

Using the Living Forests Model, this first chapter concludes that halting deforestation is all about better governance in the short term. Better governance and economic incentives will enable sound stewardship of forests and more productive use of already-degraded land. With improved governance, the world would have enough farming land, timber plantations, and well-managed forests to meet current global demand for wood and food without further forest loss.

But if current projections are accurate and the world's population passes 9 billion by 2050, over-consumption and food and energy waste will have to be slashed while productivity of farms and forestry are boosted to keep forest loss at near zero.

The Model projects that by "doing nothing" we could lose more than 230 million hectares between now and 2050.

Among other findings, the model suggests that it is possible to achieve ZNDD by 2020, through better governance, a shift to sound forest stewardship, and more productive use of arable non-forest land. Another finding is that maintaining ZNDD after 2030, as population and incomes grow, will require forestry and farming practices that produce more with less land and water, and new consumption patterns that meet the needs of the poor while eliminating waste and over-consumption. As a caveat, the model predicts that delaying ZNDD until 2030, or taking "half-measures", would lead to huge and irreversible losses in biodiversity and ecosystem services - including runaway climate change.

In essence, the Living Forests Model shows that conserving our forests is possible - and urgent. But it won't be easy.

What's next?

The second chapter of the Living Forests Report, to be released in August 2011, will examine the circumstances in which bioenergy production can be a threat or a solution for biodiversity conservation, climate change, and communities.

For millennia we have managed forests and harvested wood for energy. But the world is still dependent on oil, coal, and gas. The use of these energy sources is both unsustainable and contributes to climate change through the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. WWF's vision is that by 2050, the world will be powered 100 percent by renewable energy, including bioenergy.

In Europe, wood harvested from forest and fast-growing plantations already plays a key role in renewable energy production - 50 percent of biomass electricity in the European Union is wood-based and this is set to increase significantly according to National Renewable Energy Action Plans. Supply will come from EU forests, dedicated fast growing plantations and imports.

Bioenergy offers the prospect of greenhouse gas savings, increased national energy security and a new market for forest stewards and farmers. However, the projected expansion in bioenergy use and production could create a major additional stress on the planet's land and water resources. Bioenergy use and development must therefore be carefully planned, implemented and continually monitored for environment and social impacts. Safeguards are needed to ensure that bioenergy use and production does not compromise people or nature.

Rethinking plantations

Approaching forestry issues from another angle, WWF has been working with partners to develop the "New Generation Plantations" principles, which aim to avoid unwanted environmental and social impacts related to the expansion of fast-growing plantations.

Plantations that are based on these principles maintain ecosystem integrity, protect high conservation values, are developed through effective stakeholder involvement, and contribute to economic growth and employment.

These principles were developed jointly by WWF, private companies, and government authorities participating in the New Generation Plantations programme. The core concept of the initiative, which was launched in 2007, is that well-managed plantations in the right places can help conserve biodiversity and meet resource needs.

The programme has just released a new report looking at how plantations can store carbon and supply biomass to produce renewable energy. The report analyses several bioenergy and carbon projects of programme participants.

The study found that carbon and bioenergy are significant and growing markets for plantation owners and show that the New Generation Plantations concept and principles work - whether the plantations are providing wood, fibre, bioenergy, or carbon storage.

This supports the idea that there is a need for a major rethink on how forest plantations are run. Indeed, such a restructuring is crucial to secure long-term natural resources - such as wood and plants to produce renewable products and energy - and to help avoid the catastrophic results of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Resource use and equity

Forests are a crucial pillar of the world's natural resource base. They provide us with natural resources - such as timber to build homes, act as carbon sinks to help offset carbon emissions, and host habitats for an immeasurable wealth of biodiversity.

But if they are to continue to provide us with the goods and services we depend on, we urgently need to stop deforestation and forest degradation.

The International Year of the Forest is the perfect platform to start having the tough conversation about how we're going to do that. Because inaction is not option.

Rodney Taylor is director of forests at WWF International.

This article is published under
19 July 2011
19 July 2011
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