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Credit: Stuart Franklin

Land Use

Forest Protection

Malaysia’s tropical hardwoods have been in demand for centuries, intensively so in the last twenty years. During that time, timber companies have not only profited from the sale of timber, they compounded their gains by installing palm oil plantations. Much of the logging was illegal, as was the appropriation of the land. The effects have been devastating. Logging has degraded or destroyed the vast majority of Malaysian rainforests, and the deforestation rate is faster there than in any other tropical country. Home to one of the most intelligent primates, the critically endangered orangutan, it is estimated that only 20 percent of Borneo’s rainforests remain. This photo shows the silt-laden waters of the Miri River, colored orange by runoff from upstream logging, and the herringbone tethering of smaller-diameter trees, which indicate that forests are not being allowed to recover before being logged again.

The most critical of all forest types is primary forest, known as old-growth or virgin forest. Examples include the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia and those of the Amazon and the Congo. With mature canopy trees and complex understories, these forests contain 300 billion tons of carbon and are the greatest repositories of biodiversity on the planet.

In 2015, there were an estimated three trillion trees in the world. That count is substantially higher than previously thought, but more than 15 billion are cut down each year. Since humans began farming, the number of trees on earth has fallen by 46 percent. Carbon emissions from deforestation and associated land use change are estimated to be 10 to 15 percent of the world’s total.

Strategies to stop deforestation and protect forests include:

  • public policy and the enforcement of existing anti-logging laws;
  • market-driven mechanisms, primarily eco-certification programs that inform consumers and affect purchasing decisions; and
  • programs that enable wealthy nations and corporations to make payments to countries and communities for maintaining their forests.

The benefits of forest conservation include biodiversity protection, non-timber products, erosion control, pollination, ecotourism, and other ecosystem services.


300 billion tons of carbon: FAO. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016.

logged…biological degradation: Zimmerman, Barbara L., and Cyril F. Kormos. “Prospects for Sustainable Logging in Tropical Forests.” BioScience 62, no. 5 (2012): 479-487.

[deforestation in] the Fertile Crescent: Diamond, Jared. “The Erosion of Civilization.” Los Angeles Times. June 15, 2003.

world’s tree population: Crowther, T. W., H. B. Glick, K. R. Covey, C. Bettigole, D. S. Maynard, S. M. Thomas, J. R. Smith et al. “Mapping Tree Density at a Global Scale.” Nature 525, no. 7568 (2015): 201-205.

15.4 million square miles: World Bank. 2015. “Forest Area (sq. km).”

forest [lost] every minute: World Wildlife Fund. “Deforestation.”

emissions from deforestation: Smith P., M. Bustamante, H. Ahammad, H. Clark, H. Dong, E.A. Elsiddig, H. Haberl, R. Harper, J. House, M. Jafari, O. Masera, C. Mbow, N.H. Ravindranath, C.W. Rice, C. Robledo Abad, A. Romanovskaya, F. Sperling, and F. Tubiello. “Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU).” In Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate ChangeContribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015; Van der Werf, Guido R., Douglas C. Morton, Ruth S. DeFries, Jos GJ Olivier, Prasad S. Kasibhatla, Robert B. Jackson, G. James Collatz, and James T. Randerson. “CO2 Emissions from Forest Loss.” Nature Geoscience 2, no. 11 (2009): 737-738.

emissions dropped by 25 percent: FAO. FAO Assessment of Forests and Carbon Stocks, 1990–2015. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2015; Federici, Sandro, Francesco N. Tubiello, Mirella Salvatore, Heather Jacobs, and Josef Schmidhuber. “New Estimates of CO2 Forest Emissions and Removals: 1990–2015.” Forest Ecology and Management 352 (2015): 89-98.

Conversion of forest…soil carbon: Guo, Lanbin B., and R. M. Gifford. “Soil Carbon Stocks and Land Use Change: A Meta Analysis.” Global Change Biology 8, no. 4 (2002): 345-360.

offset…carbon emissions: Pan, Yude, Richard A. Birdsey, Jingyun Fang, Richard Houghton, Pekka E. Kauppi, Werner A. Kurz, Oliver L. Phillips et al. “A Large and Persistent Carbon Sink in the World’s Forests.” Science 333, no. 6045 (2011): 988-993.

Forest Carbon Partnership Facility: Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. 2016 Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2016.

terrestrial plants and animals; pharmaceuticals: Seymour, Frances, and Jonah Busch. Why Forests? Why Now? Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development, 2014.

Brazil…[deforestation] cut by 80 percent: Seymour and Busch, Forests.

state of Pará: Tollefson, Jeff. “Battle for the Amazon.” Nature 520, no. 7545 (2015): 20-24.

agreement between…meat-packers and Greenpeace: Srinivas, Siri. “Brazil Beef Industry Pledges to Cut Amazon Deforestation.” The Guardian. May 14, 2015; Wilkinson, Allie. “In Brazil, Cattle Industry Begins to Help Fight Deforestation.” Science. May 15, 2015.

Achim Steiner [on Brazil]: Seymour and Busch, Forests.

2016…[deforestation] ticked back up: Biderman, Rachel and Ruth Nogueron. “Brazilian Government Announces 29 Percent Rise in Deforestation in 2016.” World Resources Institute. December 9, 2016.

what is would “cost”: Boucher, Doug, Diana Movius, Carolyn Davidson. Estimating the Cost and Potential of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation. Washington, D.C.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008.

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p. 109

Primary forests contain 300 billion tons of carbon […].

These strategies include […] market-driven mechanisms, primarily eco-certification programs that inform consumers and affect purchasing decisions (many corporations have signed deforestation commitments); truly sustainable timber and agricultural practices […].

The most prominent pay-for-performance program is the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, which began to take shape in 2005. Funding programs are emerging out of the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, endorsed by forty countries and nearly sixty multinational corporations, among others. The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, a multi-sector effort meant to assist REDD+ efforts, has established two funds of nearly $1.1 billion total […].

Achim Steiner, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme […].

It is difficult to estimate what it would “cost” to save it all. One study asserts that for $50 billion per year—about 3 percent of the world’s military spending—tropical deforestation could be reduced by two-thirds.

[…] forest protection and tropical and temperate forest restoration together are one of the most powerful solutions available to address global warming.

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Technical Summary

Forest Protection

Project Drawdown defines forest protection as: the legal protection of forest lands, leading to reduced deforestation rates and the safeguarding of carbon sinks. This solution replaces non-protected forest land. It is assumed that forest protection primarily happens at the government and non-governmental organization (NGO) level. 

Mature, healthy forests have spent decades or centuries accumulating carbon through photosynthesis. They represent massive storehouses of carbon in soils and biomass. Yet, forests are being cleared and degraded at a rapid rate, causing carbon loss as well as negative impacts on ecosystem services like habitat, erosion control, soil-building, water regulation, water supply, and air pollution removal.

Forest protection reduces these emissions from deforestation. Emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation alone are estimated at 5.1-8.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year. This accounts for 14-21 percent of anthropogenic emissions (International Sustainability Unit, 2015). Future deforestation and forest degradation, although difficult to estimate due to uncertainties in population growth, enforcement of existing laws, scaling up of bioenergy, and other factors, are likely to contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions over the 21st century.


Total Land Area [1]

The total land area available for the forest protection solution was modeled using the annual rate of forest degradation and calculations of future degraded and non-degraded areas. The projected future non-degraded, non-protected area was set as the total available area for protection. This maximum area allocated to forest protection is 1,040 million hectares. [2] Current adoption [3] of forest protection is 651.0 million hectares (MacDicken et. al., 2015).

Adoption Scenarios [4]

Six custom adoption scenarios were developed for forest protection. All begin with current adoption of 651.0 million hectares. A total of 884.0 million hectares of non-degraded forest area was allocated to this solution. Given the continuous rate (0.31 percent per annum) of forest degradation and limited availability of non-degraded forest land, aggressive adoption scenarios were built, many of which yielded peak adoption of forest protection by 2030.

Impacts of increased adoption of forest protection from 2020-2050 were generated based on three growth scenarios, which were assessed in comparison to a Reference Scenario where the solution’s market share was fixed at the current levels.

  • Plausible Scenario: Analysis of the six custom scenarios under the Plausible Scenario results in the protection of 791.8 million hectares of non-degraded forest by 2050.
  • Drawdown Scenario: Under this scenario, 833.9 million hectares of non-degraded forest are projected to be protected by 2050.
  • Optimum Scenario: The most aggressive adoption scenario projects that 840.2 million hectares of non-degraded forest will be legally protected by 2050.

Emissions Model

One-time emissions from deforestation are set at 314.6 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per hectare, based on meta-analysis of 31 data points from 4 sources.

Financial Model

It is assumed that any costs for forest protection (e.g. carbon payments or payment for ecosystem services) are borne at a government or NGO level. Drawdown land solutions only model costs that are incurred at the landowner or manager level.

Integration [5]

Drawdown’s Agro-Ecological Zone model allocates current and projected adoption of solutions to the planet’s forest, grassland, rainfed cropland, and irrigated cropland areas. Forest protection was the fourth priority for use of non-degraded forest, following peatlands, mangrove protection (in the coastal wetlands solution), and indigenous peoples’ land management.


Total adoption in the Plausible Scenario is 929.0 million hectares in 2050, representing 89.3 percent of the total available land. Of this, 278.0 million hectares are adopted from 2020-2050. The impact of this scenario is 6.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions averted by 2050. Total carbon stock protected is 244.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. Financial impacts are not modeled.

Total adoption in the Drawdown Scenario is 967.0 million hectares in 2050, representing 92.9 percent of the total available land. Of this, 516.0 million hectares are adopted from 2020-2050. The impact of this scenario is 8.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent by 2050.

Total adoption in the Optimum Scenario is 976.0 million hectares in 2050, representing 93.8 percent of the total available land. Of this, 525.0 million hectares are adopted from 2020-2050. The impact of this scenario is 8.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent by 2050.



Annual emissions from tropical deforestation are estimated at 0.8-0.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year, from 8.5 million hectares of deforestation (International Sustainability Unit, 2015). Between Drawdown’s forest protection and indigenous peoples’ land management solutions, the impact is 0.5, 0.7, and 0.7 gigatons per year in the Plausible, Drawdown, and Optimum Scenarios, respectively. This benchmark is imperfect, as Drawdown includes temperate and boreal forests (not just tropical), and includes only protected forests, not emissions from non-protected forests. The Drawdown figure also excludes mangroves and forested peatlands.


This solution does not model avoided deforestation from agricultural intensification or reduced food demand due to diet change or food waste reduction. Inclusion of economic impacts, e.g. costs to governments and NGOs, would be a valuable addition to future updates.


Forests are cleared for timber extraction, for firewood, and to prepare new farmland, among other reasons. Several Drawdown solutions offset the loss of these yields to some degree. Afforestation and bamboo produce timber. Clean cookstoves helps reduce the need for firewood through adoption of efficient stoves. And farmland restoration brings abandoned farmland back into production, reducing the need to clear land. Plant-rich diet and reduced food waste lower food demand and thus the need for forest clearing, as do population solutions educating girls and family planning.

Climate activists have made "keep it in the ground" a slogan in regards to fossil carbon like oil and coal. Climate mitigation requires us to keep forest carbon in the ground.

[1] To learn more about the Total Land Area for the Land Use Sector, click the Sector Summary: Land Use link below.

[2] Determining the total available land for a solution is a two-part process. The technical potential is based on suitability of climate, soils, slopes, and degraded or non-degraded status. In the second stage, land is allocated using the Drawdown Agroecological Zone model, based on priorities for each class of land. The total land allocated for each solution is capped at the solution’s maximum adoption in the Optimum scenario. Thus, in most cases the total available land is less than the technical potential.

[3] Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand supplied by the solution in the base year of study. This study uses 2014 as the base year due to the availability of global adoption data for all Project Drawdown solutions evaluated.

[4] To learn more about Project Drawdown’s three growth scenarios, click the Scenarios link below. For information on Land Use Sector-specific scenarios, click the Sector Summary: Land Use link.

[5] For more on Project Drawdown’s Land Use integration model, click the Sector Summary: Land Use link below.

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