Protecting Existing Carbon Stores in Natural Forests and Grasslands

The world's 4 billion hectares of forests and 5 billion hectares of natural grasslands are a massive reservoir of carbon—both in vegetation and root systems. As forests and grasslands continue to grow, they remove carbon from the atmosphere and contribute to climate change mitigation. Intact natural forests in Southeast Australia hold 640 tons of carbon per hectare, compared with 217 tons on average for temperate forests. Thus avoiding emissions by protecting existing terrestrial carbon in forests and grasslands is an essential element of climate action.39

Reduce deforestation and land clearing. Massive deforestation and land clearing are releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Between 2000 and 2005, the world lost forest area at a rate of 7.3 million hectares per year. For every hectare of forest cleared, between 217 and 640 tons of carbon are added to the atmosphere, depending upon the type of vegetation. Deforestation and land clearing have many different causes—from large-scale, organized

Farming and Land Use to Cool the Planet clearing for agricultural use and infrastructure to the small-scale movement of marginalized people into forests for lack of alternative farming or employment opportunities or to the clearing of trees for commercial sale of timber, pulp, or woodfuel. In many cases the key drivers are outside the productive land use sectors—the result of public policies in other sectors, such as construction of roads and other infrastructure, human settlements, or border control.40

Current international negotiations are exploring the possibility of compensating developing countries for leaving their forests intact or improving forest management.

Unlike many of the other climate-mitigating land use actions described in this chapter, protecting large areas of standing natural vegetation typically provides fewer short-term financial or livelihood benefits for landowners and managers, and it may indeed reduce their incomes or livelihood security. The solution sometimes lies in regulation, where there is strong enforcement capacity, as with Australia's laws restricting the clearance of natural vegetation. But in many areas the challenge is to develop incentives for conservation for the key stakeholders.

Several approaches are being used. One is to raise the economic value of standing forests or grasslands by improving markets for sus-tainably harvested, high-value products from those areas or by paying land managers directly for their conservation value. Current international negotiations are exploring the possibility of compensating developing countries for leaving their forests intact or improving forest management. During the Conference of the Parties to the climate convention in Bali in December 2007, govern ments agreed to a two-year negotiation process that would lead to adoption of a mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) after 2012. Implementation of any eventual REDD mechanism will pose major methodological, institutional, and governance challenges, but numerous initiatives are already under way to begin addressing these.41

A second incentive for conservation is product certification, whereby agricultural and forest products are labeled as having been produced without clearing natural habitats or in mosaic landscapes that conserve a minimum area of natural patches. For example, the Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Program of the International Finance Corporation seeks to increase the production of sustainably produced and verified commodities (palm oil, soy, sugarcane, and cocoa), working closely with commodity roundtables and their members, regulatory institutions, and policymakers. While the priority focus is on conservation of biodiversity, this initiative will have significant climate impacts as well, due to its focus on protecting existing carbon vegetative sinks from conversion, developing standards for sustainable biofuels, and establishing certification systems.42

A third approach is to secure local tenure rights for communal forests and grasslands so that local people have an incentive to manage these resources sustainably and can protect them from outside threats like illegal commercial logging or land grabs for agriculture. A study in 2006 of 49 community forest management cases worldwide found that all the initiatives that included tenure security (admittedly a small number) were successful but that only 38 percent of those without it succeeded. Diverse approaches and legal arrangements are being used to strengthen tenure security and local governance capacity.43

Farming and Land Use to Cool the Planet

Reduce uncontrolled forest and grassland burning. Biomass burning is a significant source of carbon emissions, especially in developing countries. Controlled biomass burning in the agricultural sector, on a limited scale, can have positive functions as a means of clearing and rotating individual plots for crop production; in some ecosystems, it is a healthy means of weed control and soil fertility improvement. In a number of natural ecosystems, such as savanna and scrub forests, wild fires can help maintain biotic functions, as in Australia. In many tropical forest ecosystems, however, fires are mostly set by humans and environmentally harmful—killing wildlife, reducing habitat, and setting the stage for more fires by reducing moisture content and increasing combustible materials. Even where they can be beneficial from an agricultural perspective, fires can inadvertently spread to natural ecosystems, opening them up for further agricultural colonization.44

Systems are already being put in place to track fires in "real time" so that governments and third-party monitors can identify the people responsible. In the case of large-scale ranchers and commodity producers, better regulatory enforcement is needed, along with alternatives to fire for management purposes. For small-scale, community producers, the most successful approaches have been to link fire control with investments in sustainable intensification of production, in order to develop incentives within the community to protect investments from fire damage. These "social controls" have been effectively used to generate local rules and norms around the use of fire, as in Honduras and The Gambia.45 Manage conservation areas as carbon sinks. Protected conservation areas provide a wide range of benefits, including climate regulation. Just letting these areas stand not only helps the biodiversity within, it also stores the carbon, avoiding major releases in greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, due to some early effects of climate change, important habitats for wildlife are shifting out of protected areas. Plants are growing in higher altitudes as they seek cooler temperatures, while birds have started altering their breeding times. Larger and geographically well distributed areas thus need to be put under some form of protection.

This need not always be through public protected areas. At least 370 million hectares of forest and forest-agriculture landscapes outside official protected areas are already under local conservation management, while half of the world's 102,000 protected areas are in ancestral lands of indigenous and other communities that do not want to see them developed. Conservation agencies and communities are finding diverse incentives for protecting these areas, from the sustainable harvesting offoods, medicines, and raw materials to the protection of locally important ecosystem services and religious and cultural values as well as opportunities for nature tourism income. Supporting these efforts to develop and sustain protected area networks, including public, community, and private conservation areas, can be a highly effective way to reduce and store greenhouse gases.46

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