Forests don’t get a lot of credit in the fight against climate change. Left alone, they soak up a huge volume of carbon from the atmosphere. They are what scientists call a “carbon sink.” But, when people burn down forests to clear land for farming or grazing, those trees become a liability, bleeding their vast stores of carbon into the atmosphere.

Right now, countries are putting more money toward expanding agriculture than they are toward safeguarding forests. The challenge for governments is to create policies to protect existing forests and grow new ones. Doing so could put a big dent in climate change, according to a series of new reports.

Forests are a massive carbon sink. Source: Pexels

Managed smartly, forests could offset ten years of pollution from fossil fuels.

Successfully controlling climate change will require countries to remove at least 100 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere, perhaps even several times more than that, according to Philip B. Duffy, president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center.

“The only CO2 ‘technology’ currently available that works at anything like that scale is landscape restoration,” he said. “We have to stuff as much carbon into these natural reservoirs as they will hold. We cannot meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C without utilizing the potential of forests.”

By 2100, forests could soak up an additional 100 billion metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of ten years of carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels, according to a new report prepared by the Woods Hole Research Center. Currently, deforestation is dumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than existing forests are soaking up.

“It’s as if we’re charging $200 a month on our land carbon credit card, and only paying $100 a month off,” said Michael Wolosin, president of Forest Climate Analytics, which recently issued a report describing successful reforestation efforts in South Korea, China and India.

Deforestation can also harm the climate in the short-term. “Forests play so many important ecological roles, including protecting drinking water supplies, cooling the Earth’s surface and regulating rainfall patterns,” said Deborah Lawrence, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. Forest loss, she added, threatens “hunger and malnutrition for those who can least afford it.”

Forests are key to keeping climate change in check. Source: Pexels

Countries are investing more in developing agriculture than in protecting forests.

A new report on forest preservation found that governments, businesses and donors invested far more in agriculture and land development — at least $777 billion since 2010 — than they invested in reforestation — just $20 billion over the same period.

“It will take at least ten times more than the $20 billion that forests are currently receiving” to achieve a deforestation-free economy, said Charlotte Streck, cofounder of Climate Focus and coauthor of the report. “However, this doesn’t necessarily mean we need to raise ten times more. It is absolutely essential to redirect existing financial flows.” The dollars currently invested in agriculture and land development need to be made “conservation proof,” she said.

The perception that deforestation is necessary for economic development “is no different than the perception that fossil energy is needed for economic development,” Wolosin said. “In both cases, this perception causes business-as-usual thinking that will devastate the climate if [it’s] not changed, and in both cases is false.”

Ultimately, it will be essential to decouple economic development from deforestation, Streck said. “This requires a shift in attitude and an appreciation of natural ecosystems,” she said. “It also requires law enforcement combined with economic development opportunities away from the forest frontier.”

Forests help offset emissions from burning coal, oil and gas. Source: Pexels

One way to protect forests would be to put a price on carbon.

Duffy believes the solution to saving forests must be economic. “Policies that put a price on carbon would create economic incentives to preserve forests,” he said. “Right now, the incentives run in the other direction, which is why forests continue to disappear.”

With the right policies, countries can spur economic growth and increase their agricultural output while slowing or stopping deforestation, he said. Also, developed countries should work with developing countries to implement these changes. “If you care about the climate, you need to care about the forests,” Wolosin said. “We can’t achieve our climate goals without slowing and reversing forest loss.”

Currently, many countries pay little attention to forests in discussions of climate change. “In Europe — a crowded continent with little pristine nature left — climate change was always dominated by energy and industry policy,” Streck said. “With a shift in power in climate negotiations away from Europe, things have started to change over the last years, but getting proper recognition for the mitigation potential of forests remains an uphill battle.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.