New study suggests, without tropical forests, humanity will lose indispensable years to reduce fossil fuel use

As world leaders prepare to sign on to Climate Agreement targets in NY, data suggest forests critical – even with ratification of pact by US, China and India

Second paper reveals few countries have defined specific targets for expanding land tenure for forest peoples, despite evidence that rights are vital to stopping deforestation

2016-04-21-treeNEW YORK, NY – New findings released today by the Woods Hole Research Center – on the eve of the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement – suggest that investments in protecting tropical forests, and in reforesting degraded lands in Africa, Asia and Latin America, could provide desperately needed time to test and scale up technologies aimed at replacing fossil fuels.

The authors of the new analysis warned that failure to act on forests would give humanity until only 2035 to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use in order to limit warming to 2ºC, the goal scientists have identified as vital for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Properly managed forests would provide 10-15 additional years to stop fossil fuel use and still keep global warming under 2°C, according to the new analysis, which uses the most recent (2015) Forest Resources Assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Previous analyses ended in 2010.

“By acting to end tropical deforestation and encourage reforestation of formerly forested lands, the world could give itself more time to transform the global energy system,” according to Dr. Philip Duffy, president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center, whose analysis was released in New York during an event today at the Ford Foundation.

However, even if the big greenhouse gas emitters-China, India and US-“walk the talk” on ratifying the Agreement, the world still need strong commitments to forests in order to reach the stated climate objectives.

“The Woods Hole findings reinforce our dependence on the vast tropical forests of South America, Asia, and Africa, which hold a safe, natural, and proven technology to capture and store carbon,” said Frances Seymour, senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for Global Development. “It is called photosynthesis, and it needs to be part of the solution.”

A complementary analysis from the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), released at the same event, reveals that few of the tropical forest nations signing the Paris Agreement have committed to secure forest and land rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities as part of plans to stop deforestation-despite significant evidence that forest peoples outperform all other managers of tropical forests in retaining old growth and storing carbon.

In their analysis of 161 national plans for reducing emissions, the RRI authors concluded that only one country-Cambodia-had committed to a quantified target in how it would conserve its tropical forests by securing the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. However, violence there by illegal loggers is on the increase: On March 26, for example, an Equator Prize 2015 winner from the Prey Lang Community Network in Cambodia, Ms. Phan Sopheak, suffered an attack that is emblematic of battles taking place in some of the most remote indigenous territories, worldwide.

Seymour also cited the RRI findings, noting, “The evidence is clear that the presence of Indigenous Peoples is consistently associated with less deforestation-to the extent that the boundaries of some indigenous territories can be seen from space.”

Goal to limit warming to 2°C cannot be reached without stopping deforestation

The new Woods Hole analysis, using the 2015 FAO data, suggests that to keep global warming under 2°C, while retaining the current level of carbon land-based emissions, fossil fuel use would have to be eliminated by 2035. Stopping tropical deforestation, and expanding forest area by 500 million hectares, would extend the deadline for reaching zero carbon emissions to 2049. This would mean that instead of contributing emissions that would count against the 120 PgC limit, forests would gain an important role in combating climate change, soaking up carbon and increasing the emissions limit to 170 PgC.

“It is clear that it will be impossible to limit global warming to 2° at this point if we try to do it entirely by reducing fossil fuel use,” said Duffy, of Woods Hole Research Center. “We will have to stop emissions from land use and remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Proper management of tropical forests-stopping their destruction and reforesting previously cleared areas-can do that. At present there is no other way to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere, at any price.”

Only One Land Rights-Forest Conservation Commitment Set in Stone

In advance of the negotiations that produced the Paris Agreement, national governments submitted 161 documents, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to the UN detailing their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Countries’ INDCs now form part of the Agreement. In a review of these documents, analysts at the Rights and Resources Initiative determined that countries with tropical or subtropical forests submitted 131 of those documents.

Only 21 of these countries-representing 13 percent of the world’s tropical and subtropical forest area-included clear commitments to implement community-based tenure or natural resource management strategies as part of their effort to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, despite evidence this is critical to reducing deforestation.

“The Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals offer national governments plenty of reasons and commitments that justify providing secure land rights for forest peoples,” said Alain Frechette, senior policy advisor at RRI. “At the top of that list is the fact that these communities are largely responsible for the existence of the forests we now wish to protect. Tropical forests are fundamental to limiting climate change, but so are the people who live in and depend on these forests. Securing their rights secures our planet’s future.”

Past Research Proves the Need for Stronger Land Rights

An earlier analysis by the Woods Hole Research Center and the Environmental Defense Fund estimated that at least 20 percent of the aboveground carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests is found in territories claimed by the Indigenous Peoples of Mesoamerica, Amazonia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. However, past research from RRI  showed that only one-eighth of the world’s forests are in the legally- recognized hands of the traditional peoples who inhabit them.

Research has also shown that community forests have lower rates of deforestation and carbon emissions, compared to the areas outside their borders, where Indigenous Peoples and local communities have legally recognized and enforceable rights. For example, community and indigenous forests in Brazil store 36 percent more carbon per hectare and emit 27 times less carbon dioxide from deforestation than forests not under community control.

“We have extensive evidence that tropical forests are key to slowing global warming, and that we are the most effective stewards of the forests,” said Cándido Mezua, an Embera leader from Panama and secretary for international relations for the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).”The governments in tropical forest countries must embrace land rights in their climate change plans, and put an end to criminalization of those of us who are dying to protect the globe’s forests. Forest peoples are still waiting for the day when conservation and human rights trump business as usual.”

Methodology of Woods Hole Research Center Analysis

Dr. Richard Houghton, Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center who analyzed the data, notes that for many years, scientists have calculated annual sources and sinks of carbon from management with a “bookkeeping model” that keeps track of the areas and carbon stocks of native ecosystems and managed lands.

In their new analysis, Woods Hole researchers used annual data on land areas (croplands, pastures, forests, and other land), as well as wood harvest rates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to define changes in area and harvest rates, allowing them to calculate changes in the carbon that is stored in living vegetation, woody debris, wood products, and soils.

The data and analyses used to calculate sources and sinks-based on the latest FAO forest assessment data from 2015-are used here to define how changes in management could be used to reduce carbon emissions and create “negative emissions”.

The results (annual sources and sinks of carbon) are regularly used by the Global Carbon Project (Le Quéré et al., 2015) and the IPCC in their climate assessments to which Woods Hole researchers contribute regularly.

Link to Science Update:


Woods Hole Research Center 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 world.

Rights and Resources Initiative(RRI) is a global coalition of 14 Partners and over 140 international, regional and community organizations advancing forest tenure, policy and market reforms. RRI leverages the strategic collaboration and investment of its Partners and Collaborators around the world by working together on research, advocacy, and convening strategic actors to catalyze change on the ground. RRI is coordinated by the Rights and Resources Group, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC.