This summer, dangerous heatwaves have shattered records around the world. The extreme temperatures would be “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change, according to an ever-growing body of research.
As countries struggle to respond to the sweltering weather, a new study provides the largest and most comprehensive review yet of how to stop deforestation — a major cause of climate-warming greenhouse gases, second only to fossil fuel emissions. Led by Conservation International climate economics expert Jonah Busch, the research distills findings from 320 peer-reviewed studies that focus on what’s accelerating deforestation and how to prevent it.
With international efforts to conserve nature and fight climate change gaining ground, Busch said he hopes the study’s findings serve as a roadmap for protecting forests, “one of our best allies in reducing emissions and cooling a rapidly warming planet.”
“World leaders have committed to fight climate change by halting and reversing deforestation by 2030,” he added. “This new study can help guide policies and investment toward actions that support those goals — and away from those that don’t.”
What slows deforestation
Of all the methods proven to prevent deforestation, protected areas — such as national parks, wilderness preserves and other places set aside to conserve nature — are most effective at reducing deforestation, the study found.
“Protected areas are a tried-and-true way of conserving nature and curbing the climate crisis,” Busch said. “However, not all protected areas are created equal — their location is key. To really help mitigate climate change, protected areas must be in the right places.”
Currently, about 17 percent of the planet’s lands are conserved, but many of those protected areas are in remote locations, where the threat of deforestation is relatively low. As countries ramp up efforts to protect 30 percent of lands — something scientists and conservationists say is needed to stem biodiversity loss and climate change — new protected areas should be created in places where deforestation is more likely to occur in the first place.
That means areas with higher populations and greater proximity to cities and roads, according to the study. Understanding these drivers of deforestation can help guide where new protected areas are established — and ensure they have a greater impact on protecting nature and the climate, Busch said.
Further reading: Protected forests are a climate powerhouse
Additionally, the study found that deforestation rates in Indigenous territories or lands managed by Indigenous peoples are consistently low, either due to traditional land-management practices that favor forests, or because Indigenous lands tend to be in remote areas and less likely to be converted to agriculture, Busch said.
In 2017, Busch and his colleagues published an analysis of deforestation using studies available at the time. In the six years since, the amount of research demonstrating that Indigenous managed lands prevent deforestation has more than doubled — providing the strongest evidence yet that upholding Indigenous land rights and officially recognizing Indigenous territories is key to reducing deforestation.
“The trickle of evidence has become a flood,” he said. “Indigenous management undoubtedly slows deforestation.”
Protecting land rights enables Indigenous communities to practice their own systems of resource management, which in turn helps to protect lands and water — and support global conservation goals. Notably, late last year the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, an agreement signed by nearly 200 countries to protect nature, formally recognized the rights and contributions of Indigenous peoples.
Further reading: To achieve global conservation goals, secure Indigenous rights
Other successful approaches to preventing deforestation are based on creating financial incentives for communities to keep forests intact — for example, by valuing the carbon that trees remove from the atmosphere and store in their trunks and soils. The study found that providing benefits to communities that keep their trees standing lowers deforestation rates.
For example, revenues from the sale of carbon credits can generate much-needed investments in local communities — such as improving health services, funding scholarships or supporting new job opportunities. In Kenya’s Chyulu Hills region — where forests have been decimated by slash-and-burn agriculture and charcoal burning for fuelwood — Conservation International and partners launched a carbon project that is helping to conserve and restore 404,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land, secure new livelihoods for the local community and prevent the release of around 30 million metric tons of carbon emissions.
Additionally, the study found that commodity certification programs, which allow farmers to sell coffee, palm oil or other products at a higher price in return for protecting trees, are also connected to lower rates of deforestation — as are companies’ commitments to ending deforestation in their supply chains.
What accelerates deforestation
What’s the main driver of deforestation in the tropics? In a word: Agriculture. It’s responsible for 90 percent of all tropical deforestation, which roughly amounts to 9 million hectares (22 million acres) of forest destroyed annually — the equivalent of more than 8 million soccer fields.
Why is agriculture so damaging to forests? It comes down to economic incentives, Busch said.
“Land is valuable and scarce,” he said. “The economic value of cutting down forests for growing crops is consistently well-reflected in global markets — in short, it’s a moneymaker. But despite the huge benefits trees provide in terms of clean water, the ability to store climate-warming carbon and so much more, global markets don’t value standing forests in the same way.”
Finally, there were other drivers of deforestation that surprised Busch, either because they’d never before been identified in a peer-reviewed paper, or because they went against conventional wisdom.
For example, Busch pointed to a persistent myth that poverty drives people to deforest their lands to grow crops and meet basic needs. However, again and again evidence shows that poverty doesn’t cause deforestation — wealth does, he said.
“The more resources people or companies have, the more access they have to the equipment and labor needed to clear forests — and the easier they can secure credit to clear large tracts of land,” Busch said.
The study is also the first to identify a connection between higher temperatures and more deforestation. That’s perhaps because warmer and drier conditions make forests more susceptible to fire, which is responsible for most deforestation in many parts of the world, Busch said. This finding suggests that increased deforestation may be yet another unwelcome consequence of global warming.
Ultimately, climate change is making forests both more vital and more vulnerable. It’s a vicious circle: deforestation is driving climate change — and it’s also fueled by it.
“This summer’s record-breaking heat is a stark reminder that climate change is happening now,” Busch said. “Forests are one of our best defenses against climate change — but only if they’re left standing.”