At the kickoff of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany, I found myself swept up in the whirlwind of energy created by people gathering from all over the world to do the hard work of hammering out actionable solutions to climate change. Being at the UNFCCC negotiations is both a serious undertaking and one that is inherently laden with hope for a first-timer like myself.
In this year’s session, the two weeks promised to include a full of discussion on implementation, scientific and technological advice, and, most importantly, serve as a working group to fulfil the Paris Climate Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
For an organization like Dogwood Alliance, it’s critical that we are in the middle of such a convention because forests are the best tool that we have to fight climate change. Due to the U.S.’ past of being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, our status as one of the wealthiest nations the world has ever seen, and the unlocked potential of our forests to be bigger carbon sinks, protecting and restoring degraded forests as a part of the global climate change agenda must start with forests at home.
The reality is that global governments have been discussing how to deal with climate change at the UNFCCC meetings for decades. And with a world that just reached 410ppm of C02 in the atmosphere, we must not only decarbonize our electricity supply, countries must actively remove emissions from the atmosphere. This is oftentimes referred to as “negative emissions.”
Thankfully, we don’t have to go far for the answer. The only scientifically proven and economically feasible way to do this is to enhance what the Earth has been doing for centuries – increase and enhance carbon sinks & storage systems like forests.
Further, in the Southern U.S., we know that our forests are not only important carbon sinks, but they also provide immeasurable benefits like cultural heritage, recreation, and non-timber forest products like mushrooms, berries, and medicinal plants.
Forests are the solution to tackle climate change, preserve global biodiversity, and protect the livelihoods of millions of people. For example, in our region, 50 million people rely on forests for clean drinking water. Even more, it’s important to call out false solutions for negative emissions like afforestation and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, otherwise known as BECCS. To achieve negative emissions in a way that doesn’t exceed social, technological, or biophysical constraints, governments must move towards protecting forests and allowing degraded forests to regenerate.
In other words, it is time we all #Stand4Forests.
For the Southern U.S., this means valuing forests for more than their commodity value as timber, paper, pulp, or biomass. It means placing direct value on ecosystem services like clean air, clean water, recreation, aesthetics, extreme weather event protection, food, pollination, and countless other services. After all, wetland forests in the U.S. already provide services worth $503.8 billion to our economy that’s not directly valued!
Restoring forests can come in many forms. Specifically, our forests in the Southern U.S. deserve greater protection. Most protected lands in the U.S. are in the West, even though more biodiversity is housed in the Southeast. Logging rates need to be limited and damage from logging needs to be reduced. Finally, lost forest lands need to be restored. These are the clear measures that need to be fulfilled in order to fight the existential threat that climate change poses. Payments for ecosystem services are one way to incentivize these measures, and the values we espouse for forests must fundamentally shift to be about protection rather than destruction.
Just as the climate movement in the United States is calling for justice first, so too is the global climate movement.
In the international setting, this means that developed countries that are wealthier and have contributed more greatly to the share of global emissions have a responsibility to clean up after the decades of pollution we have caused. They can do this by scaling up our targets for emissions reductions and for climate finance.
And while our President has indicated he wants nothing to do with climate change negotiations, elected officials at our state and local levels are stepping up to join the US Climate Alliance and reduce their share of greenhouse gas emissions.
One way to do this is to expand protections for forests and limit their destruction.
Our eyes are on Governors in our region who have signed on to this alliance but have yet to stand for forests: Governor Roy Cooper in North Carolina and Governor Ralph Northam in Virginia.
Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is not only possible, it is the only chance of survival for vulnerable communities in our region of the Southern U.S. and the world, who are increasingly exposed to rising sea levels, more destructive storms, and flooding. Starting in our own region and calling on our own policymakers is critical in order to fight climate change by standing for forests.