Forests play a central role as the world confronts the challenges of climate change, food shortages, and improved livelihoods for a growing population. Forests absorb about 15% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and provide essential services to the agricultural, energy, water, mining, transport and urban sectors. They help to maintain the fertility of the soil, protect watersheds, and reduce the risk of natural disasters, including floods and landslides.
At the same time, deforestation and forest degradation contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, and many of the world’s remaining forests are under increasing threat because of human activities and climate change. Although the pace of deforestation has slowed in globally since the 1990s, it remains high with annual deforestation of about 13 million hectares (gross). This is only partially offset by reforestation, making the total annual net forest cover loss 5.6 million hectares—an area larger than Costa Rica.
An estimated 2 billion hectares of lost or degraded forests and landscapes could be restored and rehabilitated. If those areas were to be restored to functional and productive ecosystems, they could help deliver improved rural livelihoods and food security, greater climate resilience, and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation—while taking pressure off pristine forests.
Forests represent an important safety net for rural populations in times of economic or agricultural stress. About 350 million people who live within or close to dense forests depend on them for their subsistence and income. Of those, about 60 million people (especially indigenous communities) are wholly dependent on forests. They are key custodians of the world’s remaining intact natural forests.
Forests are also an economic good, providing jobs for often rural populations with few alternative off-farm employment options. Formal employment in the forest sector has been estimated at 14 million jobs worldwide with ten times that in the informal sector. Forest industries contribute about 1% to global GDP, while in some regions and countries it is much higher (e.g. in Sub-Saharan Africa it is up to 6%)1.
Forests are an important source of energy for many countries; 65% of the total primary energy supply in Africa comes from solid biomass such as firewood and charcoal. Wood-based fuel will continue to represent a principle source of energy in low-income countries and is increasingly viewed as a "green" alternative to fossil fuels in developed countries.
1. UNEP Green Economy Report, 2011.