It can be hard to find the good news sometimes, especially when it comes to the environment. Just look at the US Environmental Protection Agency, now led by a former coal lobbyist. But it is possible to find a source for your optimism. You just have to scratch the surface a little bit when you look.
Take tropical forests. Globally, 2017 was the second worst year for tropical deforestation. 39 million acres of forests were lost. And yet, governments are increasingly seeing forests—stopping deforestation, restoring degraded forests, and reforesting cleared areas—as an important solution for climate change.
In Indonesia, a new government program was announced in 2016—the Peatland Restoration Agency—to restore dried out and degraded peatland, swampy areas whose topsoil mostly consists of partially decomposed plant matter. Most of the country’s tropical forests stand atop peatlands and to convert these places to palm oil plantations or for other agricultural uses, they are drained and then cleared—but often times, dried peatlands become the source of the large forest fires that plague Indonesia every September.
The new effort has already restored 2,000 square kilometers of degraded peatland, with an overall goal of 20,000 sq km. While critics have pointed out the agency needs more resources to achieve this target, the government’s ambition in stopping deforestation shows up in one more way—the country slashed its deforestation numbers by 60 percent last year.
Indonesia is not the only country to work on its forests. China, India, and South Korea were recently highlighted last year in a report discussing their large-scale efforts to increase the size and health of forested lands. Trees were planted in degraded lands to increase forest density, once deforested lands were replanted with new trees, and deforestation practices were targeted by national laws.
Tropical forests show up on both sides of the climate change equation. In order to slow down the worst impacts of global warming, we need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and we need to somehow remove those gasses from the atmosphere.
Current research shows that a dramatic reduction in tropical deforestation can reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 2.9 gigatons (GT) by 2030. We have transformed woodlands into industrial plantations, vast mines, or massive hydropower projects, not to mention chopping down the trees for their value in timber—and this all needs to be dramatically curtailed.
Even as scientists search for mechanical ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, tropical forests also serve as an organic carbon sink. Reforestation and improved management of forests and peatlands can remove an estimated 4.3 GT CO2 from the atmosphere every year by 2030.
Tropical forests also play an important role in controlling precipitation, both in their immediate vicinity and around the world. Cutting down these trees disrupts local rainfall, leaving the surrounding areas warmer and drier. But scientists have also shown how cutting down large swathes of trees in one part of the world can dry out a region on the other side of the globe.
People closest to cleared forests, however, will feel the impacts most. They’re also the ones who have kept much of the remaining forests intact in the first place. Indigenous Peoples and local communities are increasingly seen as the best protectors of the forests they inhabit and depend on for their livelihood. In Peru, for instance, researchers found that recognizing indigenous land rights led to a significant and immediate reduction of deforestation and forest degradation in these lands.
Indonesia has also seen its indigenous communities advance their rights to more than 1.5 million hectares of land, holding the government accountable to a constitutional court ruling that the state had illegally claimed customary forests—those traditionally managed by communities—and should return those lands to the rightful owners. And this past week, the European Parliament passed a resolution recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to their lands and urging that these rights be respected.
I wrote several years ago about the fallacy of “climate hopelessness” and how we as a society simply need to embrace the full scale of the problem and implement the solutions. In that same light, it is obvious that forests are one of the most important solutions, and we are finally seeing some recognition of this point. But we must persevere. If we focus too much on the bad news, all the potential that today’s good news represents can literally go up in smoke.
Good things are happening. It’s time to drastically accelerate, and not lose hope.