Forest Ecosystem Services

18 March 2016 - // Features
Luc Bas
Director, Belgium Climate Risk Assessment Center

Forests are some of the planet’s richest ecosystems in terms of biodiversity and the important services they provide. They offer an array of natural resources and can serve as a vital means of mitigating climate change. But human-induced pressures are threatening their existence. How can we balance the needs of our growing populations and economies without further threatening these environments? 

Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services can be defined as “the benefits humans derive from ecosystems”. These services or goods they provide include food, wood and other raw materials. However, plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms also provide essential regulating services such as pollination of crops, prevention of soil erosion, purification of water and a number of cultural and health services, like recreation and sense of place.

Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Forests provide crucial services for human well-being and economic development. They support soil formation, provide food, freshwater and fuel, regulate floods, climate and diseases, and can fill educational, medicinal, aesthetic and spiritual needs. In addition, they stabilize ecosystems, play an integral part in the carbon cycle, support livelihoods, and supply goods and services that drive sustainable growth. It is evident there are a number of reasons for valuing forests and landscapes.

A third of the planet is covered by forests providing a home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. In terms of economic value, it is estimated that forests provide $75-100 billion per year in goods and services. In fact, the natural capital of forests dwarfs the value of timber: the World Forum on Natural Capital calculated that the value of conserving forests, simply in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions, amounts to $3.7 trillion, whereas the global timber industry is valued at $0.4 trillion.

Undeniably, forests are a stabilizing force for the climate. This is most visible through their role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, as estimates show that the amount of carbon “locked” in forests is currently greater than the carbon present in the atmosphere. Forests and landscapes also mitigate climate change through their adaptive capacity. There are numerous examples of how mangroves and wetlands can aid in flood risk prevention and storm protection by protecting coastlines and dissipating waves – an ever-increasing need due to global warming and sea-level rise. In Malaysia, for example, the value of intact coastal mangrove forests was estimated at $300,000 per km, equivalent to the cost of replacing them with rock walls.

1/3 of the planet is covered by forests providing a home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

Yet, forests are under stress from overexploitation, pollution, population pressure and the expansion and intensification of agricultural practices. With the additional impacts of climate change, forests are further threatened, and these adverse events may further impact land quality – leading to biodiversity loss, food insecurity, increased pests, reduced availability of clean water and increased vulnerability to environmental changes.

Forest Landscape Restoration

Over the last 200 years, more than half of the planet’s forest cover has been cleared to meet the needs of a growing population. Today, 30% of global forest cover has been completely removed and a further 20% has been degraded. The Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (GPFLR) estimates that there are more than 2 billion hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes worldwide – an area the size of South Africa, directly affecting 1.6 billion people – where opportunities for restoration may be found.

The opportunity and returns of restoring these forest landscapes are tremendous. Healthy, fertile landscapes offer habitats for wildlife and support human life, provide food, clean water and materials for shelter. Sustainably cultivated and farmed woodlands yield fuel and raw materials that can be worked or processed for trade, stimulating local industry and creating jobs. Trees in agricultural landscapes improve soil moisture and fertility and boost food production. And responsible tourism and other services can be developed as part of the rehabilitation mix.

All these forms of sustainable entrepreneurship can inject new income and new life into threatened communities, relieving poverty and funding improvements in education. Increasing forest restoration is also extremely important in limiting global warming. Halting the loss and degradation of natural systems and promoting their restoration has the potential to contribute over one-third of the total climate change mitigation that scientists say is required by 2030. Regenerating and revitalizing forests as part of landscape restoration projects would give us back some of that capacity to sequester carbon and slow down climate change. The environmental rewards of landscape rehabilitation therefore are huge. So, what is being done to restore these crucial ecosystems?

Forest landscape restoration (FLR) is a long-term process of regaining ecological functionality and enhancing human well-being across deforested or degraded forest landscapes. FLR focuses on both current and future needs: reinstating the goods, services and ecological processes that forests provide at the broader landscape level, rather than simply promoting increased tree cover at a particular location. It has the potential to mitigate the underlying conditions of erosion, soil degradation, and nutrient depletion, and enhance the opportunity for obtaining greater output from degraded land. Overall, FLR promotes the sustainable use of natural resources, enhances the resilience of ecosystems, and protects and restores the landscape – not only the forests, but also the agriculture, agroforestry, mangroves and more, that sustain the lives of urban and rural communities.

The Bonn Challenge

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is helping to increase the capacity of policy-makers, practitioners and land owners around the world to engage with FLR. One such intervention is the Bonn Challenge; a global goal that aspires to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. Launched in 2011 by the German government and IUCN, it aims to restore ecological integrity as well as improve human well-being through multi-functional landscapes.

The Bonn Challenge was born from and serves as an implementation delivery platform for several existing international commitments. The target of 150 million hectares is no coincidence; it comes from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Aichi Biodiversity Target 15, which calls for restoration of 15% of degraded ecosystems. Restoring 150 million hectares could capture about 1/6 of the carbon necessary to close the emissions gap. Reaching 350 million hectares by 2030 would result in an estimated 0.6-1.7 Gt CO2e (gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent) absorbed per year, totaling 11.8-33.5 Gt CO2e between 2011 and 2030.

Currently, 27 governments, enterprises and alliances have made pledges to the Bonn Challenge. The most recent pledges were made at the Climate COP21 in Paris by, amongst others, the governments of Burundi, Honduras and India, bringing the total to more than 86 million hectares. One country that has fully committed to the Bonn Challenge is Rwanda. It has pledged to undertake border-to-border restoration, regaining 2 million hectares of forests and landscapes within the next 25 years. This amounts to 3/4 of its land, an area that only recently began to re-grow after being almost completely lost following years of civil conflict and economic instability.

The amount of carbon ‘locked’ in forests is currently greater than the carbon present in the atmosphere.

Restoration efforts outside the boundaries of “typical” forested areas are also appearing around the world. The forests in the watershed of China’s Miyun Reservoir in Beijing are in poor health due to restrictive policies limiting the proper management of the forests’ resources. Additionally, unsustainable fuel wood collection has prevented the forests from developing and maturing into productive and biodiverse ecosystems. However, the State Forestry Administration of China (SFA), IUCN and other partners are collaborating with the Beijing Forestry Society to show the benefits of FLR, including how this can help secure the water supply for China’s megacities.

Despite these impressive commitments from Rwanda, China and other countries, there exist significant barriers to implementing FLR at the scale and over the time period required for success. In many countries, there is a lack of crucial biophysical and socioeconomic data for landscape planning and evaluation. In other countries, enabling conditions for restoration, such as supportive national policies, have yet to be put in place.

National Land Engagement

IUCN offers a means to operationalize promises of restoration through the Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (ROAM). Developed by IUCN and the World Resources Institute, ROAM is an approach to rapidly identify and analyze FLR potential and locate specific areas of restoration opportunity at a national and sub-national level, helping countries build appropriate restoration programs and landscape-level strategies. In this way, ROAM supports nations in fulfilling the Paris Agreement and other international commitments such as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the EU Biodiversity Strategy (with the goal to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020).

Over the last 200 years, more than half of the planet’s forest cover has been cleared to meet the needs of a growing population.

In addition to ROAM, the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) process under the EU Biodiversity Strategy helps determine the state of ecosystems and their services with the intention of integrating natural capital into planning and decision making. To strengthen the commitment to restoration, MAES and ROAM are useful tools. They aid in mapping out sites for immediate action, which supports the implementation of environmental legislation. They also facilitate the integration of natural capital into sectoral policies and move one step closer to stopping biodiversity loss and restoring our landscapes.

However, even with these existing support tools, all the entities that have committed to the Bonn Challenge are from outside Europe. Although most restoration opportunities lie in tropical and temperate areas, with such considerable climate mitigation potential, why have so few European countries and sub-national governments joined the Bonn Challenge? Improving the condition of forests in Europe – which could be recognized globally as Bonn Challenge contributions – should be a priority for European nations.

Tailored Solution Needed

The COP21 commitments to limit global temperature increase to less than 2°C and to restore ecosystems will hopefully trigger governments and the private sector to restore more deforested and degraded landscapes both in Europe and around the world. It is crucial, however, that these engagements do not detract from equally important efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

As forests and forested landscapes are such major carbon sinks, restoring their functionality could be construed as a way to address the current EU Target of 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 agreed upon by all EU member States in March 2015. But FLR is only a complement to the crucial efforts we still need to undertake in the energy, agriculture and transport industries and we cannot allow a reduction of these efforts. Forest landscape restoration can certainly help to mitigate climate change, but it should also be implemented for the array of other benefits it provides.

Forest productivity, biodiversity and watershed functions can all recover without compromising the livelihoods of the local population. Indeed, long-term success is largely dependent on the extent to which restoration plans recognize the rights and interests of forest communities and help to improve and sustain their livelihoods. With nearly 2 billion hectares of degraded and deforested lands across the world that can potentially be restored through a wide range of FLR interventions, initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge are key to catalyzing large-scale changes and generating a united commitment to global forest and landscape restoration.

Forest landscape restoration is not just about planting trees, it is about tailoring the solution to the context to bring back or improve the productivity of landscapes and forest ecosystems so they can sustainably meet the needs of human beings both now and in the future.


The International Union for Conservation of Nature helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. IUCN’s work focuses on valuing and conserving nature, ensuring effective and equitable governance of its use, and deploying nature-based solutions to global challenges in climate, food and development. One of IUCN’s global thematic programs is the IUCN Forest Conservation Program whose mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve biological diversity in forests and tree-dominated landscapes and ensure that the use of forest resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

Luc Bas
Director, Belgium Climate Risk Assessment Center

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