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The Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Roles of Forests

Masahiro Amano
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Telltale signs of global warming and the sluggish response of the world

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol set a target for developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% compared to the 1990-level. The CO2 concentration of approximately 370 ppm in the atmosphere back then was expected to stabilize around 400 ppm. However, the concentration exceeded that level in 2015, with the United States withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol and developing countries undergoing rapid industrialization. The difficulty in curbing global warming led the Inter-governmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) to stress that adaptation measures are necessary in combination with measures against global warming in its fifth assessment report.

Sensing an impending crisis, the Paris Agreement set a target for all countries to keep the global post-industrial temperature rise below 2°C by the end of this century. The commitment to curb CO2 emissions under this agreement strikes a contrast with the Kyoto Protocol, which set reduction targets only for developed countries. Still, the current reduction targets, which the respective countries have committed to, are expected to result in an increase of 2.7°C by 2100. Those targets will be revised every five years to achieve greater emissions reduction.

Measures for achieving the target of the Paris Agreement and roles of forests

Figure 1. Emission pathways adopted by the Paris Agreement
Source: IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 1, SPM, 2013

As shown in Figure 1, the 2-degree goal of the Paris Agreement requires bringing down GHG emissions to 0 by the end of the 21st century. Instead of completely stopping the use of fossil fuels, it seeks to achieve zero net emissions by counterbalancing emissions with CO2 sinks both onshore and offshore.

In order to achieve this goal, it is vital to make the most of terrestrial ecosystems as carbon sinks. Forests should play a central role here. Unfortunately, the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that forests are diminished at an annual rate of 3.3 million ha (see Figure 2). Specifically, over 500,000 ha of tropical forests are lost every year (Figure 3) as a result of a surging population, expanding plantations of oil palms and other cash crops to meet demands from a globalizing economy and so on. Deforestation, which mostly occurs in tropical regions, accounts for over 10% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, forests absorb about 30% of emitted CO2; thus, the Paris Agreement expects much from their roles. In terms of sink capacity, tropical forests can absorb 3-5 times the amount of CO2 from the atmosphere as compared to temperate forests and boreal forests. Given the greater role of tropical forests as carbon sinks, achieving the goal set out by the Paris Agreement will be difficult unless these forests are properly conserved. That is why Article 5 of the agreement emphasizes the need to curb deforestation and forest degradation.

The IPCC estimates that halving the speed of deforestation requires an annual investment of 21–35 billion dollars. Beside inter-governmental cooperation, the private sector is also expected to contribute its capital and talents. In addition, even if forest conservation succeeds temporarily, the carbon assimilated in forests will be released into the atmosphere once again if the forests are affected by fire or illegal logging. For this reason, tackling poverty in forest areas and enhancing the ability of residents and communities to manage forests are also necessary.

Figure 2. Change in forest area in the world (based on FRA 2015)

Figure 3. Annual decline in the area of tropical forests (based on FRA 2015)

Economies chasing after quick gains and environmental benefits appreciated in the long-term

It will take a few more decades before the marked impact of climate change will be felt, calling on us to imagine the consequences of global warming that the future generations will have to face. The same problem applies to forest conservation. Greater short-term benefits can be gained by slashing forests for timber or by converting them to farmland to grow crops. Ongoing deforestation and forest degradation are the results of human activities in pursuit of quick economic gains.

Aside from carbon fixation, healthy forests offer many kinds of benefits, including watershed protection, climate mitigation, erosion control, non-timber forest products, and recreation space. Tropical forests with complex ecosystems particularly take a long time for regeneration. Therefore, degradation of the natural environment is inevitably passed on to the next generations. This hard truth applies to climate change, given the difficulty in capturing greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere.

Governance for managing the natural environment

Many forests in developing countries are treated as public properties and often considered a social common capital without defined management entity; therefore, accountability remains unclear for any damages or destruction to the forest. Despite the importance of safeguarding the natural environment as a valuable, social common capital for the future generations, our generation prefers to pursue economic gains. Reportedly, one of the reasons President Trump was elected involved the support from people struggling to find jobs. Perhaps, it is only natural for politicians to cater to the interests of voters and to place priority on immediate economic gains instead of the future generations that have no influence over administration.

From a long-term perspective, forest conservation requires consensus in relevant communities as well as governance for stakeholders to work together and manage natural resources. Being aware of the intangible environmental benefits that forests offer, being concerned with the natural environment that future generations will inherit, and building a community empowered to manage forests are necessary for sustainable forest conservation. Likewise, the international community needs to establish a system to jointly manage the atmosphere as a social common capital, which must be underpinned by informed, conscientious citizens. It is, therefore, crucial to take measures so that more and more citizens consider the global environment for the future generations and act in an environmentally-conscious way.

Masahiro Amano
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Masahiro Amano completed his Master’s degree program at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences in 1972, and was engaged in research on forest resource management and long-term prediction of forest products at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute. In the 1980s, he also began to study issues related to diminishing tropical forests. He was involved in many forest conservation projects as an expert from JICA. Since the late 1980s, he has been researching the relationship between global warming and forests. He has held his current position since 2003.

Recent publications and papers

Scientific Discussion of Forest Sink in the Light of Kyoto Protocol, Journal of Environmental Information Science, Vol. 37-1, 9-14 (2008)
Expectation of LiDAR on Forest Measurement in Kyoto Protocol, Journal of Forest Planning, Vol. 13, 275-278 (2008)
Forest Science, Bun-eido Publishing, 250-263 (co-authored in 2007) Roger Sedjo, Forest Sequestration: Performance in Selected Countries in the Kyoto Period and the Potential Role of Sequestration in Post-Kyoto Agreements, An RFF Report, Resources for the Future, 1-58, 2006