Climate change and biodiversity: The state of the world’s forests

Will Simonson, Senior Programme Officer for Climate Change and Biodiversity at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), discusses some of the main points made in The State of the World’s Forests 2020 report.

Published at the close of the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020 and as countries prepare to adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, the new edition of The State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) report examines the contributions of forests, and of the people who use and manage them, to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. SOFO assesses progress to date in meeting global targets and goals related to forest biodiversity and examines the effectiveness of policies, actions and approaches, in terms of both conservation and sustainable development outcomes.

Speaking to The Innovation Platform, Will Simonson, Senior Programme Officer for Climate Change and Biodiversity at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), discusses some of the report’s main points, including the issues of tropical forest conservation, connections between the forest and agricultural policy frameworks, and decoupling environmental degradation and unsustainable resource use from economic growth and associated production and consumption patterns, amongst others.

What are the main take home points from the State of the World’s Forests 2020 report?

With a focus on forests, biodiversity and people, the report has five key take home messages. The first is that feeding humanity and conserving forest ecosystems are complementary and interdependent goals. This is because food systems are dependent on forests and their biodiversity: trees on farms provide shelter for crops or recycle nutrients; forested watersheds ensure freshwater provision, including for irrigation; forests provide pollination services (35% of global food production benefits from pollination by animals, many of which live in forests) and help to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Furthermore, forests provide an important safety net for many people in low-income countries during times of crisis, helping to improve their food security.

Second, despite all the benefits provided by forests, and also some progress in recent years, deforestation and forest degradation continue apace. According to the Forest Resources Assessment (FRA), 10 million hectares (Mha) of forest are being converted to other uses each year. This is down from 16 Mha/year in the 1990s. Most forests we lose are in the tropics and subtropics, whilst most gained are in temperate and boreal zones. Net loss of forest in Africa is four Mha/year, the highest of any region; it has been significantly reduced in some regions such as Latin America. In Europe and Asia forest area continues to expand through natural expansion or by planting or seeding of trees.

The next message is that agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation and forest fragmentation and the associated loss of biodiversity. Large-scale commercial agriculture accounts for 40% of tropical deforestation and local subsistence agriculture for an additional 33%.

The report also argues that solutions that balance conservation and sustainable use are both critical and possible. Significant progress has been made combatting deforestation and illegal logging through inclusion of forests in the climate change agreement and the results-based payments for reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Many local solutions combine conservation and sustainable use of forests and their biodiversity to create livelihoods and, through this, contribute to greater food security. The SOFO contains many such examples, including 10 case studies.

Finally, it is explained that bold actions must be taken to scale up successful efforts to reverse the loss of forests and their biodiversity for the benefit of people and the planet. Beyond in-situ actions to protect and restore forests, actions within farming and food systems are vital: adopting agroforestry and sustainable production practices; increasing productivity in an environmentally sound manner; restoring the productivity of degraded agricultural lands; embracing healthier diets; and reducing food loss and waste are all actions that urgently need to be scaled up.

Less than 10% of subtropical humid forest, temperate steppe, and boreal coniferous forests are currently protected and should therefore be given priority in future decisions to establish new protected areas. Why is the number so low at the moment, and how would you like to see this being addressed moving forwards?

Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 (to protect at least 17% of terrestrial area by 2020) has been exceeded for forest ecosystems as a whole, but disparities exist when looking at the protection of different forest types. This matters because the Aichi Target seeks ecologically representative protection. The protection level of subtropical humid forest, temperate steppe, and boreal coniferous forests in particular fall below 10%, and this will be for different reasons in different places: competing land uses and priorities in some countries; lack of capacity and resources to put in place an effective protected area network in others. Further establishment of protected areas should focus on these under-represented forest types, especially where they are shown to have high levels of biodiversity significance and intactness – as identified by spatial analyses published in the SOFO report.

The Aichi target is also about effective and equitable management. Effective management and protection against illegal logging, poaching, destructive fires, and other threats is critical. That is why we need to track progress in the effectiveness of protected areas. Efforts (including by UNEP through UNEP-WCMC) to understand Protected Area Management Effectiveness are hampered by lack of monitoring, lack of standardised indicators of effective management, and by limited data sharing.

Along tropical coasts, mangroves provide breeding grounds and nurseries for numerous species of fish and shellfish and help trap sediments that might otherwise adversely affect seagrass beds and coral reefs. Is enough being done to protect and conserve these forests? How should this be better addressed in the future?

Mangroves are important for a wide range of elements necessary for sustainable development, being relevant to a number of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including 2, 6, 13, 14, and 15. In this context, and to the extent that mangrove forests are still being lost, not enough is being done to protect and conserve them.

As reported to FRA 2020, 113 countries have areas of mangrove forest, totalling an estimated 14.79 Mha and with more than 40% of this total area in just four countries (Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, and Mexico). Since 1990, the area of mangroves has decreased by 1.04 Mha, but the rate of change more than halved over the reporting period, 1990-2020, from 47,000 ha per year in the period 1990-2000 to 21,000 ha per year over the last 10 years. This trend is in the right direction, but mangroves are still highly vulnerable, including from climate change related sea level rise, which threatens these systems and their capacity to protect coastal communities from climate change impacts.

More research is needed on this very question, on the factors that determine the success or failure of mangrove restoration efforts around the world, and on the way they are affected by how inland ecosystems are managed (e.g. sediment and pollution loads in rivers). The Nature Conservancy and University of Cambridge have created a global mangrove restoration potential map to help prioritise areas for future restoration. Mangroves could also take a front and centre place in the suite of nature-based solutions (NbS) that nations put forward within their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) under the UNFCCC. The UN Environment Assembly resolution on mangroves1 shows the recognition from member states of the need to protect these forests, whilst the bringing together of multiple stakeholders by the Global Mangrove Alliance is also vital.

Climate change and biodiversity
© iStock/jotily

A supportive and clear policy framework will be crucial for the future. Achieving this at the global level, however, will be difficult. Are there ways that this should be approached?

Identifying and then fulfilling potential synergies between multilateral environmental agreements and other international policy processes, with respect to forest conservation and restoration, is absolutely essential for moving forward. With the Paris agreement due to come into force, and the development of a new global biodiversity framework for post-2020, now is a prime opportunity to achieve this. The SOFO notes that, whilst forest biodiversity underpins sustainable development, most of the threats to it originate outside the forestry sector. It is therefore vital that cross-cutting strategies are developed and implemented to meet biodiversity targets and integrate them with action towards the Sustainable Development Goals, and this requires goal-focused policy alignment between sectors and administrative levels.

As noted above, the most important connections to make are between the forest and agricultural policy frameworks, to ensure these are mutually supportive. The UN Strategic Plan on Forests2 is important in this context, whilst integrated land-use planning at national and subnational level is a core plank in an integrated approach and needs to be carried out in consultation with relevant stakeholders. Coherent fiscal policies are also needed, not least in relation to agricultural subsidies.

Similarly, corporate social responsibility is also important, as are the right financial incentives with regard to land use decisions and attempts to tackle deforestation. Again, how could this be achieved?

There is a strong business case for forest conservation and this needs to be explored and communicated more and more effectively. Last year, a landmark report by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use, assessed the benefits of transforming food and land use systems worldwide, as well as the mounting costs of inaction – calling on global leaders to act now and advance the economic case for change. It shows that transitioning to food systems that protect nature results in business benefits that far exceed the investment costs. But these innovative, Nature-friendly business models need the right regulatory frameworks and they need finance to get going, including through public-private partnerships.

In Indonesia, UNEP partners with the Indonesian Government, World Agroforestry Centre and ADM Capital in the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility (TLFF), to bring long-term finance (target US$1 billion) to projects and companies that stimulate green growth and improve rural livelihoods. A prime example of this is the world’s first sustainable rubber bond, a $95m issuance which won the Environmental Finance Bond Award in 2019. The bond will fund a sustainable rubber plantation and rehabilitate degraded land in two provinces in Indonesia. The project involves the reforestation of three concessions, representing a total surface area of 88,000 hectares, ravaged by uncontrolled deforestation. This project will ultimately create more than 16,000 direct or indirect long-term and stable local jobs.

The report argues that ‘it is imperative that we decouple environmental degradation and unsustainable resource use from economic growth and associated production and consumption patterns’. Why is this so important, and how can it be achieved?

The challenge facing humanity is to feed the world without costing the Earth. Increasing production of food and other resources at the expense of forests and their biodiversity will undermine the very systems upon which the food security and well-being of current and future generations depends. That is why this ‘decoupling’ is so important, but how?

The SOFO reports a major conclusion of the global conference Working Across Sectors to Halt Deforestation and Increase Forest Area: From Aspiration to Action as follows: ‘Agri-business should meet its commitments to zero-deforestation from the production and processing of agricultural commodities by 2020. Companies that have not made zero-deforestation commitments should do so. Commodity investors should adopt business models that are environmentally and socially responsible and involve and benefit local/community producers, distributors and other value chain actors through, for example, extension programmes and the joint design of sustainable land-use plans on corporate land.’ It further describes how some agricultural banks are leading the way in supporting sustainable agriculture through different approaches: setting up funds, offering loans, technical assistance, and other de-risking instruments.

Decoupling environmental degradation and unsustainable resource use from economic growth and associated production and consumption patterns requires action across the economy and society – from the finance sector, business, government at all levels, and from individual consumers around the world.

According to the report, ‘forest restoration, when implemented appropriately, helps restore habitats and ecosystems, create jobs and income and is an effective nature-based solution to climate change.’ The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, announced in March 2019, aims to scale up action. What other initiatives are in place to complement this? What more needs to be done?

The UN Decade aims to support and scale up existing restoration efforts with the purpose of attaining ambitious global and regional restoration goals and commitments. The Bonn Challenge seeks to restore 150 Mha by 2020 and 350 Mha by 2030, whilst Aichi Target 15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity aimed, by this year, to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems (equivalent to approximately 300 Mha).The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s Land Degradation Neutrality Target Setting Programme has so far received land degradation neutrality commitments from 122 countries, and is reinforced by SDG target 15.3.

Such global ambitions have been translated into regional commitments, namely the Initiative 20×20 in Latin America and the Caribbean (aiming to restore 20 Mha by 2020), African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100; 100 Mha under restoration by 2030), the Agadir Commitment in the Mediterranean (begin restoration of 8 Mha by 2030) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC; 20 Mha under restoration by 2020). The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel initiative aims to restore 100 million hectares by 2030.

The Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration is one important network helping to deliver against these targets in numerous projects around the world. And yet, SOFO concludes that restoration progress has not been sufficient to meet the 2020 international target. The report identifies the main challenges, going forward, of orienting practitioners and policymakers to work together to ensure that restoration is planned well, implemented cost effectively, and prioritised sufficiently.

Arguably, the world doesn’t need more initiatives to complement the forthcoming Decade, but more effectively co-ordinated approaches by a wider range of actors across states, businesses, civil society organisations – and indeed the public at large to deliver on existing commitments. As Thomas Lovejoy noted in relation to the imperative of climate change action: “Everybody can do things like plant trees or help restore wetlands and pull some of that carbon back.”


Will Simonson
Senior Programme Officer for Climate Change and Biodiversity
UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre
+44 (0)1223 277314
Tweet @unepwcmc

Please note, this article will also appear in the third edition of our new quarterly publication.

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