When I saw the news – just hours after the inauguration — that President Biden had signed the executive order to bring the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement, it felt like I let out a breath that I’d been holding for four years. It was a powerful moment for all of us Americans who want to see bold US leadership on the environment. But whether that moment will translate into real, lasting change remains to be seen.
The President can afford to be ambitious. He came into office with Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives and he benefits from a wave of voluntary private sector pledges to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Biden can – and should – come out swinging on climate change.
The Climate Summit that the administration is organizing for Earth Day this week is the moment where we expect the President to show his cards. Whatever he announces, his plans need to be robust and ambitious, particularly with regard to a piece of the climate puzzle that has been too often overlooked and underfunded: the world’s forests.
Forests are one of nature’s most powerful carbon sinks: they pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it out of harm’s way. Better stewardship and rehabilitation of forests, and other carbon sinks like wetlands and mangroves, can deliver at least one third of the emissions reductions that we need in order to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming below 2°C without breaking the bank: protecting nature is much less expensive than carbon sequestration and other high-tech alternatives. Our largest and most cost-effective opportunity by far is protecting tropical forests in places like the Amazon, southeast Asia, and central Africa.
But seizing that opportunity isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are three key actions that President Biden should announce at the Earth Day Summit.
Step up International Support for Forests
The first has to do with funding and leadership. The Biden Administration should use the Summit to put money on the table together with countries like Norway, the UK, and Germany to send a strong, coordinated demand signal for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. At the same time, President Biden should announce a doubling of US contributions to the international Green Climate Fund and a scaling up of international aid through USAID for forest-safe agriculture and forest conservation. He should also call for forest-country governments to recognize Indigenous and traditional land rights, and to better enforce existing environmental protections.
For countries home to large tropical forests like Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, destroying forests for agriculture, logging, and mining is unfortunately still one of the surest paths to economic development. If we’re asking them to take a different road, we must be ready to support alternative, climate-safe economic development strategies.
Focus on Illegal Deforestation
Second, President Biden should announce at the Summit that the United States will redouble its efforts to end the trade in illegal timber and other commodities that are produced on illegally deforested land. Most tropical deforestation is illegal, and thus not at all easy to stop. Brazil, for example, has strong laws on the books to protect forests; they’re just not being sufficiently enforced. Rampant illegal deforestation is a catastrophe, both for the environment and for human rights. It’s also terrible for US producers of beef and soy, who are forced to compete with farmers and ranchers operating illegally and without safeguards.
Prior to the summit, the Biden Administration should send a signal to Congress to immediately introduce and pass Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI)’s draft legislation making it illegal for US companies to import commodities that are produced through illegal deforestation. Importantly, this approach blends carrots with sticks: it keeps illegal commodities out of the US market, but also supports countries like Brazil to enforce existing laws against illegal deforestation. It also brings us into line with similar legislation in the UK and EU.
Lead with Data and Technology
Third, President Biden could signal US climate leadership by funding a major push to get forest monitoring data and technologies in the hands of more people around the world who are on the front lines of deforestation. This can be done both through international development assistance and public private partnerships.
Good data is vital to defending tropical forests from threats and understanding how well conservation efforts are working. The world has seen incredible advances in remote sensing and big data in the last decade. But these tools can only identify threats. We need people on the ground who are equipped to take action. Indigenous groups, for example, whose extraordinary stewardship of forests is well-documented but under tremendous pressure, could use evidence of the massive carbon stores on their lands to advocate for more climate funding. They could demand better enforcement of laws against illegal encroachment on their lands.
When it comes to protecting nature, President Biden and his team stand the best chance of success by going after the underlying drivers of forest loss: the market forces that make forests more valuable when they’re burned and cleared, than when they are standing. I wish his administration great success.