UN Climate Change Conference Must Look to Trees

Sustainability, cocoa sustainability, sustainable cocoa, why is sustainability important, sustainability defined, sustainability movement, cocoa plant, cocoa bean, cacao, raw cacao, deforestation, what is deforestation

Author Ewald Rametsteiner

Deputy Director, Forestry Division, Food and Agriculture Organization
Photo courtesy of Dengo | Cacau do Brasil

Cocoa farmers in West Africa have a problem. Collectively, they produce more than half the world’s cocoa, but their livelihoods – and the world’s chocolate supply – are under threat from climate change. Put simply, their cocoa trees are getting sunburnt, and yields are declining. But they have found a solution. With assistance from international agencies, cocoa farmers are growing indigenous, fast-growing tree species among their cocoa trees, they are creating shade, mimicking what happens in natural forests. This is already helping to maintain and even increase bean yields.

Native trees generate an extraordinary array of other benefits for farmers and the environment. They can be sustainably harvested for timber, provide new habitats for biodiversity, store carbon, and protect soils and water catchments.

Turning to nature for solutions is something we all urgently need to do. Humans have been attempting to conquer the natural world for a long time, and forests especially are under pressure.

In just the last 30 years, we have replaced 420 million hectares of natural forest – more than half the area of Australia – mostly with farmlands and urban settlements. Land degradation affects almost 2 billion hectares, which is about the size of South America.

But the negative consequences of the quest to place ourselves above and exploit nature is becoming starkly obvious. A convergence of environmental emergencies – climate change, biodiversity loss, and the deterioration of natural systems – now poses a serious threat to humanity and the planet.

Forests are essential for a functioning planet, and for achieving Sustainable Development Goals related to climate change, biodiversity, water security, and sustainable production and consumption. Yet we have been treating them as expendable.

This week, leaders and experts gather for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), one of the most important meetings in history. They must look to trees for solutions.

To deal with the climate crisis, we need approaches that simultaneously manage ecosystems sustainably, address societal challenges, and generate other benefits. Cocoa agroforestry in West Africa is only one example of a huge range of nature-based solutions involving trees and forests. The challenge is to scale them up so they can make a difference globally.

FAO is gathering evidence for three forest-based pathways we believe will be crucial for averting the multiheaded crisis we face. The first is to halt deforestation and forest degradation. By doing so, we will cut global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, limit the loss of valuable biodiversity, and reduce the risk of future pandemics.

The second is to use forests and trees to restore degraded lands and put more trees on farms. This will boost the resilience of ecosystems as well as productivity and livelihoods – much needed for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Done at a sufficient scale, this will extract GHGs from the atmosphere and also create an enormous resource for the third pathway – building a more inclusive, resilient and circular economy with forest products and services.

The State of the World’s Forests, to be published in 2022, will present a blueprint for ramping up engagement, empowerment and investment in these three pathways.

Wood is almost magical in its versatility – it can substitute for polluting products like steel, concrete, plastics, and fossil-fuel-based textile fibres. It could underpin a new economic approach focused on reuse, recycling, and renewal.

Forestry in its various forms – protection, restoration, and enhanced sustainable use – can build natural assets, absorb vast quantities of GHGs, conserve biodiversity, protect water catchments, and supply the world with materials. It doesn’t hold all the answers, and it has its own challenges, but it will be a big part of the solution if we are to head off disaster.

The good news is that the first steps along these three forest pathways are being taken, led by smallholders, communities, and many private companies. COP 26 needs to boost support for these actors and accelerate progress. The more we work with nature rather than against it, the better our chances of navigating towards a greener, more sustainable future.

[This blog was originally published by IISD here.]