Getting to Net Zero Climate Emissions and the Role for Forests

By Climate Advisers
Forests & Lands

A New Goal From the Paris Climate Summit

In December 2015, the world made a huge leap forward by defining the long-term pathway to cut carbon emissions and tackle dangerous climate change. Scientists say that this decision now puts forests at the center of climate action.

At the Paris climate summit, world leaders committed to limiting climate change to 2°C and to striving for 1.5°C. They agreed that global emissions, which are still rising, should peak as soon as possible. Importantly, leaders also agreed nations must reach “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

Achieving this balance means reaching “net zero” by no later than 2100 – the world needs to take as much carbon out of the air as we put into it.
In order to achieve these goals, nations agreed to develop national “mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” These roadmaps will guide each country’s subsequent climate plans, which the Paris agreement requires must be updated every five years.

To get to net zero in the second half of the century, the world will need to look to forests.


Forests Are The Lowest-Cost, Large-Scale Mitigation Solution We Have

Forests offer one of the best chances to cut climate emissions, and they are by far the biggest low-cost carbon solution. In 2030, the world could reduce forest emissions by 7.8 billion tons at an up-front cost of about $6 per ton of CO2.1 This is less than a third of the cost of cutting emissions from industry or the power sector.

Within the forest sector, avoiding deforestation is the biggest single opportunity, about two thirds of the total potential. Other actions include growing new forests, restoring old forests and better forest management.

Figure 1. Abatement Opportunity Versus Cost, in 2030


“Cost” reflects capital cost only and does not account for financial savings through, for example, lower energy use.


Forests Are the Only Proven, Large-Scale Way to Take Carbon Out of the Air

Scientists agree that while slashing climate pollution is essential, it will not be enough. Given the time it will likely take to dramatically reduce emissions and the warming effects of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, the only way to limit global temperature rise to 2°C is carbon capture – taking it out of the air through some sort of negative emissions technology.2

In the Paris agreement, nations did not specify the preferred technologies to accomplish carbon sequestration on a global scale. But natural carbon sinks – forests – are the lowest cost, risk-free carbon capture solution currently available.

Forests are currently the only large-scale negative emissions technology, removing an average of 10-15 billion tonnes (Gt) from the atmosphere annually.3 In contrast, industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS), while a promising emerging technology, has lagged far behind. Fifteen operating CCS plants around the world currently have the capacity to capture about 18 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Counting those now under construction and on the drawing board, sequestration can reach 77 million tonnes by the mid-2020s – a big increase, but still woefully inadequate.4

As nations begin to internalize the commitment made in Paris to achieve net zero emissions by the end of the century, they must include a strong role for forests as the biggest, most affordable carbon sink – and the only large-scale sequestration option available.

Maria Belenky contributed to this analysis.

  1. McKinsey Global Institute, Global Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curve Version 2.
  2. Anderson, K., 2015. Duality in climate science. Nature Geoscience, 8(12), pp.898-900.
  3. Le Quéré, C., et al, 2015. Global Carbon Budget 2015. Earth System Science Data, 7(2), pp.349-396; Pan, Y., et al, 2011. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science, 333(6045), pp.988-993.
  4. Global CCS Institute Database.

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Getting to Net Zero Climate Emissions and the Role for Forests
April 2016

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On April 19, 2016

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