Saving our forests from the effects of climate change
By Ana LaRue
Most people are still navigating through the data of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, but it’s overall message is clear: anthropogenic (or human-made) climate change is already taking its toll on the life on this planet.
In a series of blogposts, Maximpact will be looking at what the IPCC’s findings mean for different parts of the impact investing sector. In the first of the series, we focus on forestry.
What do the findings mean for our forests?
Global warming is the best-known consequence of climate disruption, and its effects will probably intensify other global problems including damaging the health of our forest ecosystems. Forests play a key role in the mitigation of climate change but they are also highly affected by the stresses that result from it. Deforestation creates a vicious cycle: increased deforestation leads to increased greenhouse gas emission and increased climate change, which in turn poses additional threats to forest ecosystems.
The IPCC report covers several aspects of climate change that impact directly on forests.
Increases in CO2 emissions: With no doubt, concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased to levels that are unprecedented in at least 800,000 years. This may not necessarily be a negative thing for our forests. Given sufficient water and nutrients, increases in atmospheric CO2 may enable trees to be more productive in mitigating climate change.
However, given the substantial role forests play in the global carbon cycle, there are other considerations. Deforestation and forest degradation through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, destructive logging and fires account for nearly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a United Nations initiative that uses market and financial incentives to combat deforestation (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), the world’s forests are disappearing at the alarming rate of one football field’s-worth every few seconds. This means that meeting the UNFCCC’s (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) target of 2 ºC rise will be practically impossible to achieve without also reducing emissions from the forest sector.
Changes in precipitation: The IPCC predicts the contrast between wet and dry regions will continue to increase, with wet areas getting wetter and dry regions growing more parched. This will likely change the availability of water, altering forest growth cycles due to higher drought in some areas and extreme precipitation and flooding in others. Although forests can be resilient to some degree of change, more pronounced episodes could wipe out more sensitive local tree species. Variations in precipitation can also lead to natural disasters such as monsoons, extreme winds, floods, cyclones or extreme droughts. This could make ecosystem recovery even more challenging.
Increases in temperature: Twelve of the warmest years in recorded history occurred during the last fifteen years; and the IPCC report predicts that it will only get more intense. When it comes to our forests, variation in temperatures can alter growing seasons and shift geographic ranges. Forests facilitate food, water and air production, help to minimize storm damage and produce a wide range of natural medicines. A shift in the growing seasons could mean extinction of certain tree species that could no longer adapt to these changing conditions. Changing temperatures may also be responsible for additional threats to forests, such as pest outbreaks, fires, and drought.
What can we do today?
While some people still question whether IPPC’s prognosis is 100% on track, we can no longer argue about whether the human race plays a role in climate change. It seems sure we’re all heading for a period of global change and uncertainty. What seems less sure is what we can do about it.
Government policy will be highly significant in determining the response to the threat of climate change. However the wheels of government turn slowly; and there is still significant reluctance on the part of some governments to acknowledge the reality of climate change at all. For a quicker, more committed response, it will necessary to look elsewhere: toward private investors, philanthropic bodies and corporate certification schemes.
Impact investing – forestry: Impact investors, funds and intermediaries are increasingly attracted to business incentives that involve sustainable forestry, but they often have a hard time locating deals. Collaborative platforms like OpenForests and Maximpact can provide different sector-specific opportunities to locate attractive deals and collaborate towards making a measurable impact.
Philanthropy – forestry: Individuals can choose to directly donate to foundations that support forestry initiatives such the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and the WWF. Philanthropic donations can minimize specialized knowledge needed when deciding how to maximize impact in a specific sector.
Global certification standards: Companies can also work with different certification programs that guarantee the product they are choosing is made with wood from a certified sustainably-managed forest. To help consumers and companies know which products come from sustainably managed forests, several certification schemes have emerged, most notably those by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
The IPCC prognosis is also clear in one more thing: there is still time to do something about climate disruption. Forests provide us with valuable resources including clean water, recreation, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and a variety of forest products including medicine. Climate change is a threat and what we are able to do today will have a direct effect on the forests of future generations.
[Image credit: Morgue File]