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No Regrets: Maintaining Forests for Adaptation and Mitigation

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
Feb 11, 2011
Publisher Name: 
World Resources Report
Frances Seymour
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In Brief: The author argues that while governments will face trade-offs in deciding how to respond to climate change, they should not lose sight of the opportunities to capture synergies between approaches that meet both short-term and long-term objectives. Improved forest management is presented as a win-win solution that provides many such synergies, as well as opportunities for jointly advancing countries’ adaptation and mitigation objectives.  The author also emphasizes that governments must inform citizens of the adaptation and mitigation choices ahead, and put in place democratic processes to enable meaningful public participation.


Climate change presents governments with many critical choices.  Not least among those choices is how to meet the political and moral imperatives of responding to today’s urgent needs, while also investing sufficient resources to meet the needs of the future.  But while governments will certainly face trade-offs, they should not lose sight of opportunities to capture available synergies between approaches to climate change that meet both short-term and long-term objectives.

Better forest management: a win-win solution

Improving the management of forests provides many such synergies for reducing current and future vulnerability to climate change, and also for jointly advancing both adaptation and mitigation objectives. In the short term, forests help to buffer communities and societies more broadly from the effects of current climate variability that they are already experiencing, such as droughts, storms, flooding, and landslides. For example, forests can provide a degree of physical protection to coastal areas from storms and waves, and forest-based ecosystem services can help regulate hydrological flows during years with abnormal rainfall. Forest-based foods and other products that can be consumed or sold for income provide a safety net when agricultural livelihoods are affected by drought. It is also increasingly recognized that by providing those functions, forests have an important role to play in helping people adapt to climate change in the longer term.

But the ability of forests to supply those goods and services is compromised when they are degraded or converted to other uses, and degraded forests are themselves less resilient to climate change compared to intact forests. For example, forest areas that are subjected to fragmentation or unsustainable logging practices are more vulnerable to fire. Accordingly, in order to prepare for next year’s drought, as well as to anticipate the 2050 shift in rainfall patterns, the appropriate response is the same: invest in the sustainable management of forests.

Benefits of ecosystem-based approaches

Many approaches to climate change adaptation are of the “bricks and mortar” variety, for example, building dams and reservoirs to control floods and store water.  Ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation, including maintenance of forest cover to conserve natural hydrological functions, can be a cost-effective complement or substitute for hard infrastructure, and introduce more flexibility to adaptation strategies.  In light of the many current benefits provided by forests, such ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation are likely to belong in the “no regrets” category.

In particular, investment in sustainable forest management as an adaptation strategy yields a ‘double dividend’ related to mitigation:  one of the more recently-appreciated services provided by forests is carbon sequestration and storage.  As deforestation and forest degradation account for up to one-fifth of current global carbon emissions, maintaining forests as forests must constitute a critical component of climate change mitigation strategies at national and global levels.

Potential trade-offs, winners and losers

However, forest ecosystems are themselves threatened by climate change, as well as by exploitation pressures to meet current food, fuel, and fiber needs.  Protecting forests requires responses at local and global levels that may indeed pose difficult choices between current and future welfare, and create “winners” and “losers” across different geographies.

At the level of particular landscapes, the ecological integrity (and thus resilience) of forests need to be protected from threats posed by conversion to other uses, fragmentation, and degradation due to excessive harvesting of timber, wildlife, fuelwood, and other resources.  Aggregated at the global level, this same protection–by averting emissions from deforestation and forest degradation–will contribute to reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change that could undermine the ability of forests to continue playing their current carbon storage and sequestration roles.

Financial mechanisms being mobilized under the rubric of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (“REDD+”) have the potential to provide a source of finance for such protection, and for compensating communities for any loss of current income that such protection entails. Depending on how REDD+ benefits are shared at national and local levels, forest protection efforts could help finance rural development, but could also easily make some stakeholders worse off.  Thus an important trade-off is between imposing risks on some of the world’s most vulnerable communities in the short run, versus the risk of no action to reduce forest-based emissions, which benefits the global community as a whole in the long run.

At the global level, REDD+ funds are likely to be targeted to the “high-carbon” humid forests of the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin, and Indonesia.  As a result, other sources of finance will be needed to address adaptation challenges in areas most affected by climate variability, including the dry forest areas of sub-Saharan Africa. To minimize zero-sum trade-offs, governments should build adaptation synergies into the design of forest interventions funded by REDD+, and reserve scarce adaptation funds for targeting action in “low-carbon” forests.

The governance challenge

The poor governance and weak institutions that characterize forest management in many countries present a cross-cutting challenge.  In order to realize the adaptation and mitigation benefits of sustainable forest management, governments will have to challenge vested interests in the status quo, and allocate significant investment to build the necessary institutional infrastructure that is currently lacking at all levels.  Such infrastructure is needed to link local communities with higher levels of government, to facilitate inter-sectoral collaboration, and to enable citizens to have meaningful voice in the design of adaptation and mitigation strategies.  But this investment entails few short-term/long-term trade-offs, as many of the same governance and institutional capacities needed to respond to immediate development needs and disaster risk reduction are the same as those necessary to prepare for climate change in the long run.

Making trade-offs between current and future welfare, allocating costs and benefits across stakeholder groups, and taking decisions about what risks to take and how to manage them are all inherently political decisions.  Thus one of the most important “no regrets” investments that all governments must make is in informing their citizens of the adaptation and mitigation choices ahead, and putting into place the democratic processes necessary to enable their meaningful participation in making those choices wisely.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut