Women of an agroforestry cooperative carry mate leaves out of the Atlantic forest. © Sonja Ritter / WWF

Prevention is better than cure. It’s a truth we should remember when it comes to forests too.

Prevention is better than cure. The truth of this old saying has guided our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, from wearing masks and limiting social contacts to spending trillions of dollars on testing and vaccinations.

It’s a truth we should remember when it comes to forests too. Investing in forests is preventative medicine – a message that comes through loud and clear in WWF’s new report, The vitality of forests.

Human health and forest health are inextricably linked. Deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change, which poses multiple risks to human health, including the emergence of new diseases and pandemics.

Healthy forests are essential for a healthy future. So here’s a prescription setting out five actions we need to take now to improve the state of our forests.

1. Legislate against imported deforestation
Commercial agriculture remains the leading cause of deforestation. And while the worst of this is happening in tropical countries, much of it is driven by consumption in other regions. The European Union, for example, was responsible for more than 200,000 hectares of deforestation in 2017 alone through its imports of commodities like soy and palm oil.

Last year, the EU proposed a new law that aims to prevent imports of products linked to deforestation. Similar laws are being introduced in the USA and the UK. Legislation in these key consumer markets would send strong signals to the private sector and to producing countries to get their house in order.

While these developments are encouraging, there’s a long way to go. Laws need to be enforced, and other big consumer and producer economies, like China and Brazil, need to follow suit. It’s also important that due diligence legislation doesn’t just focus on legality but on sustainability – and that it covers the conversion of other important natural ecosystems like savannahs, grasslands and wetlands, in addition to forests. Such policies also need to protect and enforce the rights of Indigenous people and local communities, including their equitable and fair participation.

2. Turn pledges into action on the ground
At the Glasgow climate summit last year, more than 100 world leaders committed to halt and reserve forest loss and land degradation by 2030. They pledged US$12 billion in public funds to protect and restore forests, with private investors and philanthropists committing a further US$7.2 billion.

Now, governments need to turn their pledges into political will and action by setting ambitious time-bound targets, transparently reporting their progress and increasing resource flows, especially to address the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. The currently negotiated new Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) offers an opportunity to demonstrate political leadership to manifest these pledges. 

Similarly, private companies and the finance sector need to step up their commitments to end deforestation in commodity production. We need to see greater leadership in the collective effort to create traceable and transparent deforestation- and conversion-free supply chains.

3. Show what nature-based solutions look like
In the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about nature-based solutions to climate change. Halting the destruction of forests and other carbon-rich habitats while restoring natural ecosystems offers enormous opportunities to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, alongside reducing emissions from fossil fuels.

Nature-based solutions could make a major contribution to climate mitigation and adaptation, if they ensure social and environmental safeguards and are developed with Indigenous people and local communities. Yet only 2% of international climate finance goes to forests. WWF’s recent blueprint aims to guide public and private finance toward high-quality, high-impact nature-based solutions that deliver measurable benefits for people, nature and the climate, at a scale that matters.

4. Scale up and join up forest landscape restoration
Along with their commitments to end deforestation, countries have made impressive pledges to restore degraded forest landscapes. The Bonn Challenge aims to bring 350 million hectares into restoration worldwide by 2030. Under this umbrella are regional initiatives including AFR100 (the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative) and Initiative 20x20 in Latin America.

But implementation lags far behind – something WWF is trying to address through our own projects with African, Latin American and Asian countries. We need a better understanding of enabling conditions and incentives, and ground-up inclusive solutions, to enhance and scale up restoration and more streamlined monitoring to take stock of progress. Better coordination between the relevant Conventions, including UNCCD, CBD and UNFCCC would also help improve coordination at the country level. 

5. Set the right incentives
The value of the services that forests provide – not least to human health – are immense, but they aren’t fully recognized in our economic system. Governments, financial institutions and businesses need to put in place the right incentives – and remove disincentives – to ensure forests are worth more standing than cut down.

The billions pledged to forest conservation and restoration are dwarfed by environmentally harmful subsidies: governments spend at least US$1.8 trillion per year on subsidies that drive the destruction of nature. Instead of propping up destructive industries, these subsidies should be redirected to support sustainable food production, forest landscape restoration and nature-based solutions.

The evidence has never been clearer: for our own health and the health of the planet, we need to halt and reverse the destruction of nature. And, as the latest IPCC report highlights, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

Some of the worst impacts of climate change and nature loss will be incurable. But it’s not – yet – too late to prevent them.