Avoided forest conversion
Every year, millions of hectares of native forests are cleared for other land uses, including croplands, grazing lands and tree plantations. In the process, most of the organic carbon stored in the trees is lost to the atmosphere.
We define forests as land with trees covering more than 25% of its area, not including wetlands. Most but not all deforestation should be halted. For example, in some tropical countries rural farmers still practice ancient and sustainable crop-rotation practices that involve clearing forests at the same rate that they are allowed to regenerate. Most deforestation is not sustainable, and is driven by commercial agriculture. There are many opportunities to improve production on existing agricultural lands and avoid unsustainable forest conversion. Avoided forest conversion will be particularly important in the tropics, which have the highest rates of forest loss.
Each year, some 9 million hectares of forest are lost – an area larger than South Carolina or Austria. Avoiding most of that deforestation would prevent the release of nearly 3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year (GtCO2e/year). That’s comparable to the emissions from 620 million passenger vehicles per year.
The major challenges to preventing deforestation are political and economic. Avoiding deforestation will require establishing large-scale incentives and regulatory mechanisms to address the major sources of deforestation, such as cattle ranching in the Amazon or palm oil production in Indonesia. Also, rural communities that depend on unsustainable forest clearing will need help developing alternative livelihoods, preferably as part of the new restoration economy. Focusing on single regions will not be enough, however. When forest loss is averted in one region, it is often “transplanted” to another part of the world. To prevent deforestation, we must take an integrated, global approach.
Avoiding forest conversion is a relatively low-cost pathway that’s ready to put into practice immediately. In the past, critics have argued it was premature to take action given the limitations of measuring and monitoring the world’s forests. As measurement and monitoring techniques have improved, this argument is no longer a significant barrier to action. Despite some political and economic hurdles, we have the tools we need to stop deforestation now.
Spotlight: Brazil’s Forest Code
First created in 1965, Brazil’s Forest Code was transformed in the 1990s through Presidential decrees and revised again in 2012. The Code regulates land use on private property – and with 53 percent of Brazil’s native vegetation occurring on private properties, the law goes a long way toward protecting the nation’s native forests.
Since 2001, the Code has required landowners to conserve native vegetation on their rural properties. The 2012 update introduced new mechanisms for protecting land. One such mechanism creates a marketplace for swapping lands that can be legally deforested on one property to offset reforestation requirements on another.
Although the law has been controversial and challenging to enforce, it appears to have achieved important outcomes in slowing forest loss and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Gross tree cover loss in Brazil dropped from 3.84 million hectares per year in 2004 to 2.25 million hectares per year in 2014. Correspondingly, gross carbon emissions fell from 289 million metric tons of carbon per year in 2004 to 152 million metric tons per year in 2014. Brazil’s reduction in deforestation is particularly notable, as the 21st century has seen increasing forest loss elsewhere across the tropics. Brazil’s success is also thanks to their leadership in monitoring and reporting of forest loss – they are the only country in the world that reports to the public a map of deforestation each year.
While there is no one-size-fits-all legal framework for avoiding forest destruction, Brazil’s Forest Code offers a powerful example of a transparent and robust forest monitoring system.