Houghton influencing international climate policy

Falmouth, Mass. – In January, Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton attended a meeting on “Forests, Climate Change and Development,” convened by HRH The Prince of Wales to discuss the current state of the world’s great tropical forests and their unique role in the climate system. The goal of the meeting was to bring representatives from tropical nations, donor nations, and NGOs together with academics and business leaders to evaluate policy responses to the ongoing challenge of reversing deforestation across the tropics.

Dr. Houghton was invited largely because of a peer-reviewed paper he wrote in 2013 which has been widely discussed in the climate-policy community. This paper lays out in broad terms how forests, properly managed, might offset fossil fuel emissions in the next few decades as the world switches from fossil to renewable fuels. Dr. Houghton’s paper suggests that restoration – i.e., conserving standing forests, allowing immature forests to grow and reforesting degraded lands – can reduce global CO2 emissions very substantially: by as much as 50% of today’s emissions, for the next fifty years. The idea that the biosphere can be a major “sink” of CO2 is not new, of course, but Dr. Houghton was the first to translate forest capacity to real emissions numbers.

Restoration has been gaining ground in the policy community since the Bonn Challenge in 2011, which called for the restoration of 150 million hectares of degraded lands by 2020. Last fall, the New York Declaration on Forests sought commitments to restore 350 million hectares of degraded forest and cropland, and the New Climate Economy Report demonstrated that restoring 350 million hectares of degraded forests could sequester up to 3 billion tons of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to about 2% of recent global annual emissions.

“Forests have the agenda at the moment,” said Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum to a crowd of government ministers, CEOs, and NGOs at the Forests, Climate Change and Development meeting. Mr. Waughray’s point was that attention should be used to design and implement win-win solutions, “at scale,” for development and climate. Many participants, including WHRC Board member Jeremy Oppenheim, had spent the previous week in Davos at the World Economic Forum. Dr. Houghton was encouraged by the participation of the business community and remarked that “the meeting was unlike a scientific meeting – more will, fewer data.”

The conference was organized by The Prince’s International Sustainability Unit (ISU) created by HRH The Prince of Wales to tackle some of the key environmental challenges facing the world.


WHRC is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the globe.