Exploring the vital role of our forests

Aerial view of colorful fall foliage of boreal forest in nordic country

Today we are celebrating the International Day of Forests, the UN day dedicated to highlighting how forests link to every aspect of our lives and why they need to be safeguarded.

Forests help combat climate change, purify water systems, clean the air we breathe, provide nutritious food and offer multiple ecological, economic, social and health benefits. However, despite these critical services, the world loses 10 million hectares of forests each year due to deforestation.

This International Day of Forests, we are exploring the many benefits of forests and how UNEP-WCMC’s work is boosting knowledge and policy action to support the conservation and sustainable use of forest ecosystems.

Forests are key to combating climate change

Forests are essential to tackling climate crisis and have the potential to sequester up to 30 per cent of all the carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels.

Our report released during last year’s COP27 UN climate summit, titled, ‘Making good on the Glasgow Climate Pact: a call to action to achieve one gigaton of emissions reductions from forests by 2025’, revealed that for a 66 per cent chance to limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius, it is critical to sequester 11-13 gigatons of atmospheric carbon emissions per year by 2030. The report suggests that by protecting, restoring and sustainably managing forests could deliver 30-36 per cent of the emissions reductions needed to avert climate catastrophe.

Forests purify our air and water

Forests offer a plethora of essential benefits, including regulating freshwater flows and influencing regional precipitation patterns, which play a significant role in sustaining agriculture and cities. Over 75 per cent of the world's accessible freshwater comes from forested watersheds. These essential ecosystems also enable regulation of water availability at regional levels - for example, the Congo Basin influences rainfall patterns far into North Africa.

Prevention of natural disasters

Well-managed forests and other stands of trees have the potential to reduce the impacts of natural disasters, during and even after disaster events. Mountain forests can help reduce soil erosion caused by flooding. Similarly, mangroves and other coastal forests can help decrease the impact of storm surges and tsunamis, while well-managed terrestrial forests can reduce the risk of wildfires.

As showcased in our recent Benefits of European Restoration report, initiatives such as the Danube Delta project, which involved rewilding efforts and planting more trees, have reduced the risk of wildfires and diminished the threat presented by floods. The initiative has also improved water availability for farmers and further presented a powerful restoration incentive for people living in the region.

Conserving soil for agriculture

Forests and forest soils play an interactive role within the environment and provide essential support to agricultural production and global food security. Soil is a key component of forest and woodland ecosystems and contributes to regulating essential ecosystem processes, such as water availability, nutrient uptake and more. As forests prevent soil erosion, they further prevent and reduce soil salinisation and optimise the trade-offs between water yield and soil protection.

Integrating forests and agriculture via “agroforestry” has been recognised as a sustainable farming method to combat forest loss and mitigate climate change. For a recent report, we worked with local partners to scope potential priority areas to increase tree cover through agroforestry in cocoa-growing areas in Ghana. We found that well-designed and managed agroforestry could provide tremendous benefits, including enhancing soil fertility, habitats for predatory species to control insect pests, diversified farmer income and a more stable microclimate to boost biodiversity.

Home to a wealth of biodiversity

Forests are home to 80 per cent of amphibian species, 75 per cent of bird species and 68 per cent of mammal species. Tropical forests contain around 60 per cent of all vascular plant species. Rainforests such as the Amazon, the Congo Basin and the Borneo are massive reservoirs of biodiversity. However, land expansion has depleted forest regions and their biodiversity. The latest Living Planet Report, which features scientific inputs from UNEP-WCMC, revealed devastating statistics of decline in many forest-dwelling species. However, it also found that recovery is possible if we act urgent to safeguard forest habitats.

If we are to realize the ambitions of The Glasgow Climate Pact and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework then pledges to support the conservation and sustainable use of forests, and the financing required to invest in forests, will need to be backed by action. Dedicated and coordinated efforts are needed now if we are to secure the Earth's terrestrial lungs and biodiversity treasure chests – our critical forests.

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