Forests For The Future

Will a high level meeting taking place in London today add momentum to efforts to save the world's remaining tropical forests?

While for years we've become accustomed to believing that the clearance of the world's tropical forests is a necessary price we must pay for progress and to generate the revenues needed to fight poverty, a meeting hosted by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales in London today will hear a quite different message: namely, that if we don't keep the forests then it's not only wildlife that will suffer, but human societies too, and not just those living in and around the forests, but right around the world.

2015 is a key year for the world's remaining tropical forests, and today's high-level gathering will attempt to take forward momentum from last September's forest summit at the United Nations General Assembly into crucial meetings later this year, including those seeking to conclude a series of Sustainable Development Goals by September and the December Climate Change meeting in Paris, which will hopefully result in a new agreement that is capable of addressing that challenge. Crucial to success will be high-level understanding as to how forests are not just beautiful and full of wonders, but pivotal to the future of humankind.

Take the climate change that is increasingly regarded as a serious source of humanitarian and economic risk, some of which has recently become graphically evident in the tragic and expensive consequences of floods, droughts and storms impacting different parts of the world. We frequently hear how this is caused by the combustion of fossil energy, but less often how it is also caused by (and can in part be solved through) decisions affecting forests. Today's London meeting will consider how stopping deforestation and restoring degraded areas could provide up to one third of the solution to climate change.

The meeting will also hear about the extent to which tropical forests are vital for future food security. Whereas for decades forested areas have been opened and cleared for the production of palm oil, beef, soya and other commodities, new scientific research has revealed the extent to which intact forests are vital for sustaining food production. The successful production of sufficient food is of course essential for development and poverty reduction, and anything impacting on that process must be regarded as a strategic risk with potentially grave consequences.

One of the ways through which forest loss will undermine farming is via disruption to regional water cycles. Trees exhale water into the air and in some parts of the world this is a major source of rain cloud. Cutting down the trees has the effect of reducing moisture in the atmosphere and that in turn can lead to reduced rainfall. The exceptional drought afflicting the huge city region of Sao Paulo in South-eastern Brazil has been linked with deforestation, including that taking place in the distant Amazon basin. As well as sustaining vital rains, forests also help to protect life and property from too much water.

There is little doubt that the run of extreme weather seen across the world in recent years is linked to climate change. What has sometimes been less obvious is how the effects of extreme conditions are often made so much worse by deforestation, with the reality of this connection backed up by an ever-growing body of scientific evidence. Where intact forests remain more water is held in the environment for longer, causing rivers to flow more evenly. Take the forest away and all the water runs away at once, in the process increasing flood risk. The epic deluges that hit Thailand in late 2011 were made far worse than they otherwise would have been because of deforestation.

The forests are more than collections of trees of course. They are also home to most terrestrial wildlife species, including many already known to have economic value for people. Take the pharmaceutical sector, which is worth about US$640 billion annually, and of which between about a quarter and half is based on compounds first derived from wild species. Honed by evolutionary arms races taking place over millions of years, the chemicals invented by wild animals, plants, fungi and microbes have been drawn into our own arsenal of cures and treatments, helping us to fight disease and make people feel better.

Survival innovations developed by wildlife are also increasingly the inspiration behind solutions to design and engineering challenges. Our ability to find ideas from wildlife in the development of new drugs, designs and products of course depends upon it still being there. The fact that tropical deforestation is the top cause of extinctions on land should thus give us yet another reason to pause before declaring the clearance of the remaining forests as an economically rational strategy.

But what to do? Deforestation is after all not a new challenge, and despite repeated efforts to stem the losses, still the destruction and degradation of these vital systems goes on. While science confirms more and more reasons to keep the forests, politics and economics struggle to find the means to do what is needed.

With many ministers, leading figures from business, scientific experts and influential campaign groups in attendance at today's informal gathering, it is hoped that further consensus might emerge as to how best to manage commodity supply chains in ways that reduce pressure on forests, to promote secure and sustainable livelihoods and enable the restoration of damaged forest landscapes. Crucial to the whole challenge will be the economics, and how, as HRH put it back in 2007 when he launched his influential Prince's Rainforests Project, it will be possible 'to make the forests worth more alive than dead'. Whichever way you look at it this is in large part about fixing flawed economic signals and structures and how best to free up the money available to do the job. Some might come from carbon payments, more from government-to-government assistance, other sources from switching subsidies and further resources through private sector investment.

The fact that all of these can make a positive difference is not in doubt, as has already been demonstrated through projects in different parts of the world. The big question is how to get scale, and that is down to forging more effective partnerships between people, governments, companies and conservation groups and ensuring the resources are there to support them.

The good news is that the kind of frameworks and priorities that are emerging from experience and research confirm how slowing and stopping forest loss, and restoring much of what's gone, is not only affordable, but is an investment that will deliver big returns. Vital for success, however, will be the commitment and resolve of those who are in a position to make a difference to step up and do it. In the final analysis, that is what today's meeting is all about.

This article was first published by the Huffington Post, 26th January 2015.