Trees and forests are essential for climate protection, as they absorb carbon in significant volumes. Here, carbon is not just stored in the biomass of the trees themselves, but also in the ground. They do this on a permanent basis, and are far more (cost-)effective than any technical solution. But this natural process has its limits. It takes decades for trees to absorb a significant amount of carbon, and if they die off or succumb to forest fires, the captured carbon can be released again.
Despite these challenges, the relevance of forests is cited in numerous international agreements and initiatives, including Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Various draft laws and initiatives reflect the significance of forests ecosystems and their benefits for biodiversity. The United Nations, for instance, has declared 2021 to 2030 as a Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. At the Glasgow climate protection conference in November 2021, 130 countries signed the Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which seeks to put a stop to deforestation worldwide by 2030. This came in the wake of the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests. The European Parliament recently passed the EU Nature Restoration Law.
Forests are also hotspots of biodiversity, and essential for the water cycle. Once these habitats are lost, it also increases the danger of pandemics (zoonotic diseases) for humans. UN Secretary General António Guterres underscores the fundamental significance of forests: “Forests also act as important carbon sinks, absorbing about 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Sustainably managing forests is therefore critical for closing the emissions gap and limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels.”
Forests in northern regions could, theoretically, have a negative impact on the climate, largely due to the albedo effect, which describes the capacity to reflect sunlight. If our Alps or the forests in the north are covered by white snow or ice, the reflection of sunlight is greater than if, for example, they are covered by the green cover of a spruce forest. From a climate perspective it would be better if the north remained free of trees, to prevent excess storage of heat. And due to the brief vegetation period in these regions, trees grow very slowly, so they absorb less carbon than tropical forests which photosynthesise throughout almost the entire year. As such, the far north is not ideal for reforestation projects. Otherwise, boreal forests are of enormous significance as global carbon and methane stores, as they can store more carbon in their ground than rainforests. How exactly the spread of forests in northern regions impacts the climate is still the subject of scientific investigation, and there is a lack of clarity around the net effect on the climate.
The burning of fossil fuels is by far the greatest driver of climate change. Nonetheless, deforestation also has a significant bearing. The main reasons for the destruction of forests are cattle farming, soya cultivation, the harvesting of tropical timber, palm oil plantations, timber plantations for paper production, infrastructure projects, which includes reservoirs, as well as the mining of raw materials such as oil, coltan and gold. Global warming and the associated droughts compound the effect of “normal” forest fires, which in turn leads to increased release of carbon, and, again, reinforces the impact of climate change – forest fires are at once cause and symptom.
To reach the targets of the Paris Agreement and protect biodiversity, we urgently need comprehensive measures for reforestation and forest protection measures. The latest IPCC report (2023) shows that nature-based solutions – including reduced destruction of forests and other ecosystems, their restoration and improved management of agricultural operations and other usable land – are among the most effective strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Since the Kyoto Protocol, reforestation and forest conservation projects have played an important role in climate protection. These nature-based solutions aim at reforestation or conservation of existing forests. The aim is twofold: avoidance of carbon emissions, and capture of carbon from the atmosphere. High investment costs (reforestation, care, etc.) make reforestation projects significantly more expensive than forest conservation. Plus, forest conservation comes with much greater biodiversity benefits. myclimate supports both approaches, in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein, and throughout the world.
With forest conservation projects, the focus is on ensuring that carbon is not emitted into the atmosphere in the first place. The climate impact of these projects is calculated by comparing the retained biomass with an average deforestation scenario.
In one project category, the aim is to reduce the pressure on forests, either because the local population needs significantly less wood for cooking (efficient cookers) or because they no longer need firewood at all (biogas cookers). A large proportion of the projects supported and developed by myclimate fall into this category.
Another project category is the forest conservation project designed in line with the UN principle REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). Under these projects, forests are actively conserved and reestablished in the event of degradation. The principle here is that deforestation generates short-term economic value, for example through income from wood, agricultural land or the construction of settlements, as well as all downstream value chains. So an unused (conserved) forest has an ostensibly less monetary value. This is also the reason why Western countries have transformed around two thirds of their original forests into settlements, infrastructure and agricultural operations over the last few centuries, thus generating economic income or growth. So to provide an incentive for leaving forests intact, the UN developed the REDD+ mechanism, with Switzerland playing a major part. The Paris Agreement recognises REDD+ and the central role of forests in Article 5. Under REDD+ projects, the sale of CO2 certificates pays for forests not to be cleared, and to recover. In other words, forest owners are compensated for the opportunity cost of not transforming their forests into other forms of land usage. As this type of project is highly complex, myclimate only supports REDD+ projects that are certified under the Plan Vivo standard, the most stringent standard for land use and forestry (LUF) projects. For example: rather than just paying out money for forest conservation, projects also offer the local population an incentive for retaining the forest. This could include the development of NTFPs (non-timber forest products) that are only possible through retention of the forest (honey, for instance). myclimate currently has three REDD+ projects with Plan Vivo certification in its portfolio.
In reforestation projects (removal), trees capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their biomass and in the ground. This sequestering of carbon is known as the “sink effect”. myclimate only supports and co-develops reforestation projects that are designed to offer landowners a financial motivation for retaining their forests. Consequently, myclimate adopted the Plan Vivo standard for its projects early on. These projects are designed for the long term, which means that landowners not only receive financial compensation, but can also earn additional income through sustainable forest management. Under Plan Vivo-certified projects, planting must never be in competition with arable land for the cultivation of food.
With reforestation, trees are planted in quantities that equate with the final or target status in 50, 100 or 200 years. In natural forests, the ultimate stock of mature trees represents a mere fraction of the seedlings germinated. As well as natural attrition and the felling of sick trees, the projects that myclimate supports focus particularly on planting fast-growing trees which can be felled for timber within just a few years. For this usage a local timber industry is established with new, local supply and processing chains which generate new income (added value) for the landowners, for example through the sale of biochar, wooden products or the creation of jobs in local sawmills. Reforestation of trees creates further jobs both permanent and temporary, which also benefits non-landowners in the region. Labour is required for seedling operations, the planting and care of trees as well as the monitoring of trees for certification. The goal of a successful reforestation project has to be that the local population’s quality of life is better than it was without forests – that farming families earn a higher income from leaving the planted forest standing than they would by turning it into arable land.
myclimate has two Plan Vivo reforestation projects in its portfolio which it has been supporting and co-developing for years, with methods such as pre-financing for enlargement of project perimeters.
For all project types, myclimate essentially uses a conservative calculation from carbon modelling. For example, soil carbon is generally not included in calculations for forest projects. Growth models are also subject to conservative estimates to ensure that the promised volume of carbon is actually absorbed. In addition, 10 to 20 per cent of the potential certificates for every forest project are transferred to a pooled risk fund for the certification standard in question. So if a forest is destroyed by fire or storm, these emissions are covered and accounted for by the risk fund.
Plants must also be cared for to prevent total or partial failure. Even with the best tree care trees can sometimes be lost – which is also true of a naturally mature forest. In projects supported by myclimate, only surviving trees are included in carbon calculations. Failure and usage are accounted for and are part of every carbon calculation method. This ensures that promises of climate protection impact can actually be fulfilled.
An effective climate protection forest project has to meet a number of key criteria to benefit the climate as well as the local communities and biodiversity. Every climate protection project that myclimate supports has to fulfil certain basic criteria. Additional criteria apply to land use and forestry (LUF) projects in the portfolio. Before deciding to support a certain project, myclimate conducts thorough due diligence.
To begin with, the permanence of the measures is of central importance. This means that trees – either newly planted or already in place – have to grow over several decades to store effective volumes of carbon and thus remove it from the atmosphere. The sustainability of these projects also comes from the prevention of fires, which release the stored carbon again.
As with all climate projection projects, forest projects have to guarantee additionality to be certified. That means it must be proven that it is only because of the carbon funds that new forest regions are protected throughout the entire project duration of at least 30 to 99 years. Only new protected areas can fulfil this criterion of additionality. This is audited by myclimate, the standard in question and an external audit company. Existing forest conservation areas cannot pass this kind of audit.
At the same time, there is a focus on social integrity. Forest conservation projects must incorporate, and not exclude, local communities. Each project undergoes an FPIC process. The conservation of the forest and new planting must offer benefits to the local population, for example with new income sources such as forestry, honey production, payment for environmental services (PES) and professions such as ranger and project roles. It is also essential that there is no “leakage”, which means that the project has to be embedded in the overall environmental balance. One frequent criticism of earlier projects was that even when earmarked areas were conserved, the clearage of adjacent areas actually increased. This is where myclimate’s due diligence plays an important role, by ensuring that all supported projects minimise this leakage effect and create extra income sources.
Finally, environmental integrity and promotion of biodiversity are central elements in every climate protection forest project. This includes reforestation with diverse local tree species which are adapted to local conditions and which offer ideal habitats for local flora and fauna.
To ensure and monitor that trees and forests are retained in the long term and the climate impact actually comes about, projects are regularly reviewed – annually by the standard, every five years by independent external auditors and by myclimate.
You can find further exciting information on the subject of climate change and climate protection in our climate booklet