Every few years, thousands of the world’s most renowned climate scientists work together as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They present us with the latest scientific assessment of how we well we are protecting the planet for future generations. This week in Japan, they are finalizing their latest assessment.
You might have guessed that we’re not doing too great at the moment.
Most people have heard that if we want to have a realistic chance at stopping climate change, we need to phase out fossil fuels.
But the science has also never been clearer that doing that will only be effective if we simultaneously protect the world’s remaining forests. Deforestation and climate change make for a vicious cocktail.
The science shows that climate change is likely to lead to more intense periods of droughts in some tropical rainforests, increasing their vulnerability to fire. Add deforestation to that and you have a recipe for disaster. Deforestation fragments remaining forest, making it even more vulnerable to drought-induced fires. Forest fires then release carbon, triggering even more climate change.
Last year’s massive forest fires in Indonesia were a stark reminder of what that future might look like if we do not end deforestation by the end of this decade.
In the world’s largest remaining rainforest, the Amazon, there is a risk that this vicious cocktail will lead to a “tipping point” with disastrous consequences. The combination of climate change and deforestation could cause the forest to rapidly change into savannah, causing the forest to lose much of its biodiversity, while releasing the carbon stored in its trees.
However, this does not have to happen. Scientists today also leave us with a bit of hope (or, one could say, a big warning sign). We stand a realistic chance to avoid this from happening if we manage to keep the rise in temperatures below 2°C and prevent fragmentation of the Amazon. Keeping tropical forests as intact, unfragmented landscapes allows them to maintain their resilience to climate change. Therefore, alongside phasing out fossil fuel emissions, we need to cut deforestation rates and conserve the intactness of tropical forests ,so they remain the breath-taking wilderness we know today.
The new evidence the IPCC is expected to include in their assessment highlights what we are already witnessing on the ground in the Amazon. A changing climate puts additional pressure on forests and their ecosystems. But the rainforests of Indonesia and the Amazon are not the only forests under threat. The heat wave in Russia in 2010 alone caused more than 1 million hectares of boreal forests to burn down. According to the World Bank such extreme weather events and their dramatic consequences for the world’s forests could become the new normal if we don’t stop climate change.
To put things in perspective, deforestation globally accounts for about 12% of total man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In other words deforestation causes roughly as many emissions as all the world’s cars, planes, ships and trains taken together. So forests are a big deal.
But forests do much more than just cause GHG emissions: they also soak up a portion of humankind’s greenhouse gases. That means that deforestation delivers a double whammy – forest destruction releases emissions into the atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide) while at the same time reducing forests’ ability to soak up greenhouse gases. And as the climate changes and resources become scarce, we are going to need to forests to be in tact so that we can adapt to a changing climate.
The science has stated the facts loud and clear. Now we have to act. Only if we succeed in leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground, stopping companies like Procter & Gamble from destroying the world’s forests, and getting governments to commit to Zero Deforestation policies, do we have a chance to save the climate.