Climate change is among the greatest challenges of our time, with devastating impacts for people and biodiversity across the globe.
WCS’s Forest and Climate Change Program works on innovative solutions to help ensure that Earth’s remaining forests and peatlands can deliver climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits at the scale we need.
Forests capture CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and store it in their biomass. Terrestrial ecosystems absorb 30% of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions emitted every year.
Healthy forests return moisture to the air through evapotranspiration, so that areas downwind of forests receive more rainfall than those downwind from urban, agricultural, or degraded forest landscapes.
When thinking about the loss of ecosystems, we sometimes look at their remaining area (e.g. forest cover). But equally important to consider is the integrity of the ecosystem - the degree to which function, structure, and composition are similar to its natural or reference state.
High integrity forests typically provide higher levels of many forest benefits including: carbon sequestration and storage, healthy watersheds, traditional forest use, and contribution to local and regional climate and forest-dependent biodiversity. Ecological resilience, including to drought and fire, is higher in more intact forests.
40% of forests still have high integrity, and this is declining year on year.
Declines in ecosystem integrity generally mean reduced suitability or availability of habitat for native biota, disrupted ecological processes and functions, diminished ecosystem resilience, and reduced capacity to sustain species and to provide many other ecosystem services.
Maintaining high connectivity of intact forests across wide areas enables species to recolonize after harmful local events in a way that cannot occur in isolated fragments, further contributing to healthy and functionally diverse natural communities.
Protecting high integrity forests helps to avoid a range of serious pressures on human health. Degradation of high-integrity forests can negatively affect water and food security, and increase fire frequency and severity, which increases respiratory illnesses over wide areas. Securing high integrity ecosystems helps to minimize the risk of disease spillovers that can otherwise lead to pandemics.
Forest loss and degradation globally are driven primarily by agricultural expansion and secondarily by extractive activities – logging, mineral and fossil fuel extraction. These drivers are enabled by misaligned financial incentives and governance regimes that fail to recognize the values provided by forest ecosystems. This results in land use decisions that favor short-term private gains over public goods.
Forest loss and degradation contribute to the climate crisis by emitting carbon and reducing the biophysical climate regulation roles that forests play, particularly in the tropics. The climate crisis itself also threatens forests, particularly in drier, hotter, and more fire-prone regions.
Without protecting, maintaining, and restoring forests and peatlands, preventing dangerous warming above 1.5C is not an attainable target.
Without incentives to ensure the effective protection of forests, deforestation and degradation will continue, resulting in declines in the critical climate functions these ecosystems provide.
Yet only a limited amount of climate finance (~2.5%) has targeted forests. That funding has focused on reducing carbon from deforestation or increasing removals from reforestation, but not on protecting the world’s high integrity forests for their role as a massive carbon sink that soaks up excess carbon from the atmosphere like a “sponge.” The resilience and adaptation benefits of high-integrity forests have similarly been largely overlooked.
What We Do
Our program achieves its goals through a linked set of priorities.
1. Protecting high-integrity forests and peatlands
Given the importance of high integrity forests globally, our team is working to:
Advance rigorous science for measuring and valuing high integrity forest ecosystems and including them in spatial conservation planning processes and other venues so their value can be recognized and incorporated into national legislation and policies, and global commitments — including in partnership with Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and with the incorporation of Indigenous science perspectives.
Catalyze global action by securing new multilateral policy commitments, funding, and financial mechanisms that incentivize high integrity forest and peatland conservation, working with forest country champions.
Consolidate and expand protections in the world’s most important high integrity forest regions, through policy reforms, incentives and support to implementation efforts by community, Indigenous, and government partners.
2. Reducing deforestation and forest degradation
The Forests & Climate Change Team works with the Markets Team to address the drivers of deforestation from commodity production, including through:
Partnerships and interventions that create zero deforestation supply chains, and that improve farmer livelihoods through the ‘Forest Frontiers’ approach; and
High integrity carbon market finance, an area where we aim to place WCS in a leadership role in transitioning carbon market finance from free-standing REDD+ projects to larger-scale REDD+ jurisdictions, with individual projects nested within them.
3. Restoring forests in and around priority landscapes
Our forest restoration program is organized around four main objectives:
Provide implementation funds for projects to pilot restoration efforts in conservation landscapes
Develop financial mechanisms for the scale-up of restoration efforts where this aligns with other programmatic priorities
Support the monitoring and evaluation of restoration efforts to improve practices, and increase transparency and accountability in the use of funds
Promote the evolution of global standards of practice through the sharing of data, experience and learning in international policy processes.
4. Fostering resilience and adaptation to the impacts of climate change.
In order to strategically address climate impacts and other threats to biodiversity, our general approach is to:
Understand current and future climate change impacts, and how they interact with other threats to biodiversity.
Systematically plan the actions needed to address those issues, including adapting current conservation strategies as needed and supporting governance at relevant sites to integrate adaptation into decision-making and management plans.
Leverage funding for continued forest conservation that reflects the multiple resilience benefits to biodiversity and people.
Support the implementation of conservation actions on the ground with Indigenous Peoples and local communities, including monitoring outcomes and revising actions as we work into the future.
WCS and its science partners have produced the first measure of ecological integrity for all the world’s forests. This new, publicly available tool can be used to inform global policy decisions and land management.
In October 2019, a study in Science Advances, co-authored by WCS, said that the climate impact from the loss of intact tropical forests had been grossly underreported. In fact, the researchers said, carbon impacts are six times higher than previously thought due to the loss of these forests between 2000 and 2013. Further, they warn, the climate change mitigation benefits from them will soon dwindle if their rate of loss continues to accelerate.
“Our results revealed that continued destruction of intact tropical forests is a ticking time bomb for carbon emissions," said co-author Sean Maxwell, of WCS and the University of Queensland. "There is an urgent need to safeguard these landscapes because they play an indispensable role in stabilizing the climate.”