Forests for Climate Grow at COP26

As COP26 comes to a close, forests have grown to new heights as a climate solution. Here are the three big COP26 takeaways.

By Jad Daley, American Forests president and chief executive officer

As I prepare to board a plane home from COP26, a sprawling event punctuated by high-level international negotiations and protesters in the streets, I am buoyed by one clear outcome: Forests have grown to new heights as a climate solution. Here are the three big COP26 takeaways for me.

The Forgotten Solution No More

The Paris Agreement hammered out in 2015, and the proceedings around it, did not offer much focus on forests, or the land sector generally. But this started to change with the Global Climate Action Summit in 2018, where natural climate solutions captured center stage thanks to spokespersons such as Jane Goodall, and a powerful communications narrative around the slogan, “The Forgotten Solution.”

Well, it is fair to say that after COP26, we have to retire that “forgotten solution” moniker. It was apparent right from the World Leaders Day on Nov. 2 that nature-based solutions would lead at COP26. This powerful role for forests was led by a pledge to end deforestation by 2030 in nations that have 85 percent of the world’s primary forests. Meanwhile smaller-scale announcements on forests came from individual nations, sub-national actors, corporates and NGOs.

For those of us doing this work in the U.S., it was a point of pride that our Congress approved $8.6 billion to deliver forests for climate as part of the landmark Infrastructure Bill that was finalized by the U.S. House and sent on to President Joe Biden in the middle of COP. And our Congress has another $30 billion for forests and climate in the pending Build Back Better Act! This is likely the largest commitment yet of any nation to forest-climate solutions over the next decade. In the midst of these federal advancements, the U.S. Chapter of 1t.org announced at COP26 new pledges from state and local governments, corporates, NGOs, and civil society groups to conserve, restore and grow 50.8 billion trees by 2030. In short, America is all in behind this global trend.

An Incomplete Picture of Forests for Climate

While there was much interest in forest-climate solutions, COP26 failed to showcase key parts of this opportunity, such as working forests and wood. There was very limited discussion in the plenary discussions or the Blue Zones pavilions about the vital role of working forests in keeping forests as forests and providing us a with a diversity of renewable, carbon-smart materials. Don’t forget, the mass timber everyone is so excited about to decarbonize the building sector actually requires timber!

Equally missing was adequate discussion about climate-smart forestry to keep our existing forests healthy and resilient. Most notable, there was hardly any discussion about wildfire, and how we can make our forests more wildfire resilient through science-based techniques that address an evolving climate. Yet the lack of climate-smart forestry is arguably the most significant potential driver of carbon loss in many nations’ forests.

Addressing the full spectrum of forests is essential as we get to the questions of policy finance, and how to scale this work up. Stakeholders need to know that these actions are credible for our forests, our climate and our communities.

Overly Focused on Private Finance

That leads to my last observation. Sometimes COP26 felt like a giant balance sheet exercise of how to move money from one place to another — especially private sector carbon finance. It became almost a running joke for me to see how many panels I could count entitled some version of “Scaling Finance for Nature-Based Solutions.” This is problematic for two reasons.

First of all, when we lead with the money, and not the work itself, we feed the concerns of vocal stakeholders who think nature-based solutions are de facto a replacement for other climate action. We need to start with the needed actions in our forests, and the outcomes we will achieve, and then move to the mechanisms to make those things happen.

Second, the strong moves to scale private sector finance are too often put forward without any reference whatsoever to the complementary role of government programs and policy — like the $38.6 billion I referenced above that the U.S. Government is about to put into forests for climate.

This is important, because the cold reality is that many things we need to do on forests for climate will never work at scale in carbon markets — like wildfire risk reduction and other kinds of restoration forestry with complex carbon dynamics and longer-term carbon benefits. We urgently need government programs to provide the needed financial incentive and support for those actions, relieving the pressure to try to fund everything through carbon markets, and therefore risk their integrity.

Further, we know from experience that it isn’t always about money. Some public land managers and forest landowners just need better information through technical assistance to adjust their forestry practices for climate goals. We must talk about this cost-effective leverage point, too.

Although two of my three takeaways above are about what was missing or slightly imbalanced at COP26, the overall outcome is that this was a huge win for forests. It has taken more than a decade for the U.S. forests for climate conversation to incorporate in a balanced way all of the aspects I am encouraging here, and it will take time for the global conversation through future COPs to reach the same place. I am flying home from Scotland today excited to get to work with other forests advocates around the world and make sure the next COP builds on this strong start in Glasgow to reflect the whole climate solution our forests can provide.

American Forests inspires and advances the restoration of forests, which are essential to life.