Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Tropical forests: private sector focus must include both ‘produce’ and ‘protect’

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Disciplined forest protection is required

Permian Global’s Stephen Rumsey argues for a forest model that increases productivity while preserving essential ecosystems

Protection and recovery of tropical forests at once conserves existing carbon stocks and has the potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to safe levels.

The corporate sector has a major role to play and Permian Global has been designed as an organisation which can be an effective partner, with both governments and corporates. Here we look at the “produce and protect” model, offering insights on how these twin objectives can be achieved without sacrificing the mitigation opportunity or sustainable development goals.

The keys to success are properly embedding emissions reductions and sequestration as key metrics, early adoption of full carbon accounting within land-use decision making, and business-to-business partnerships across the ‘protect’ and ‘produce’ sectors. Effective protection only succeeds by working with local communities to assist with the achievement of development goals and has the additional benefits of watershed protection and biodiversity conservation.

2014 saw an increasing commitment from companies to address the issue of deforestation and supply chain risk. It is critical that we now build on this progress by encouraging greater collaboration between the ‘produce’ and ‘protect’ sectors that embraces the degradation and sequestration challenges, alongside deforestation.

Proactive protection

Increasing agricultural productivity will only lower the pressure on forests if accompanied by proactive, professional and ecologically-based forest protection.

What practical steps can we take to start this process? If we are to leverage the potential of forests as a carbon mitigation channel, reducing emissions and safeguarding sequestration must be clearly recognised as key metrics of success.

In addition, full carbon accounting must be adopted by all tropical forest operators – governments and corporations alike. Unless the full carbon impact of supply chains is properly understood we cannot make optimal decisions over the allocation of resources or properly develop a balanced ‘produce and protect’ strategy.

To understand the need for expertise in protection as well as production, consider a typical tropical lowland landscape, with the remaining forest fragmented and degraded, and larger areas given over to farming.

The ‘produce’ challenge is to intensify agriculture and achieve higher yields. If this can be achieved, it is assumed that deforestation pressure will be reduced, farming-related emissions will fall, farmer incomes will rise and ‘deforestation free’ labels can be attached to a wide range of domestic products.

However, this leaves out a vital piece of the plan – the need for large-scale commercially disciplined forest protection, implemented alongside the drive toward sustainable sourcing. Without protective measures, the risk is that higher agricultural productivity would facilitate the conversion of more forests to farmland. So the private sector needs to be closely involved with both improved production and more effective protection.

A triple challenge

Within protection, there are three distinct challenges. The issue of deforestation is widely recognised but there are other dynamics which are less well understood. For example, it is well known that deforestation accounts for around 8% of all carbon emissions.

However, much less well known is the contribution of forest degradation (largely driven by legal and illegal logging, and wood fuel and charcoal). Research over the last decade has found that emissions from degradation are 6-14% of all emissions, perhaps more.

New findings on sequestration add a third component to the mitigation picture, indicating that current CO2 removals by both intact and recovering forests are very significant – gains that would be greater still if more degraded forests were to be fully protected. A new report by the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit estimates that the mitigation potential of stopping emissions from tropical deforestation and degradation plus safeguarding existing sequestration is in a range of 24-33% of all carbon mitigation – much higher than previously realised.

When these data are viewed in the context of current levels of atmospheric CO2 and the absorptive capacity of forest and other terrestrial systems, the climate mitigation implications are profound.

The difference between today’s 400 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 and the level over 200 years ago in 1800 of 280 ppm is (when expressed as carbon) about 250bn tonnes. This huge quantity of airborne pollution could be re-converted to stored carbon if the 5bn hectares of remaining forests, and 10bn of hectares of other lands, were to be managed to optimise sequestration, over the next critical decades.

Strategy review

From this perspective, ensuring the proactive protection of tropical forests is the first stage of a larger terrestrial recovery process, an insight which suggests that we need a thriving ‘protect’ industry to leverage the full potential of this mitigation pathway. All companies, and development agencies, should carefully consider this aspect when reviewing their supply chain and mitigation strategies.

More immediately, three starting points can be seen. First, we need to regard emissions reductions and sequestration as key metrics of success; second, full carbon accounting must be adopted and embedded in produce and protect strategies, as measuring deforestation emissions is necessary, but not sufficient; third, we must foster partnerships between supply chain and protection businesses. Synergy between these two can enable specialised expertise to tackle both the produce and protect challenges in a very powerful combination.

Stephen Rumsey is chairman of
Permian Global. Permian Global is a sponsor of Innovation Forum’s deforestation conference in Washington DC.

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