Forests Are for Everyone

18 March 2016 - // Features
Tim Christophersen
Head, Nature for Climate Branch, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

Remembering our roots is important, today more than ever, so we can stand tall in our increasingly hectic urban lives. Get involved in your local communities, learn more about nature and plant trees!

In many peoples’ childhood, forests and nature were places of magic and wonder where our imagination could run free. During endless summer days in the woods we would build castles, fight epic battles, and discover mountains of hidden treasure. With urbanization, this familiarity with nature has become increasingly rare. Every child in the world should have an opportunity to let nature open and form their hearts and minds. Luckily, most cities in Europe have urban trees and green spaces so that even children who grow up far away from a forest can experience the powerful inspiration trees can provide. But over time, many of us lose touch with our natural roots. The Forest City Project aims to re-connect city dwellers with forests and give everyone the opportunity to discover their emotional and spiritual connection with nature. Remembering our roots is important, today more than ever, so we can stand tall in our increasingly hectic urban lives. Europe is blessed with abundant forests, providing a source of inspiration and relaxation. We should make good use of this rich natural heritage, and manage it with care. And as Europeans, we have a responsibility for forests far beyond the borders of the European Union.  By choosing what we buy, we influence whether forests in the tropics can prosper or whether they are turned into fields and pastures to produce beef, soy, palm oil and other commodities for import into the EU.

Advice from a Tree

Stand tall and proud

Sink your roots into the Earth

Be content with your natural beauty

Go out on a limb

Drink plenty of water

Remember your roots

Enjoy the view!

-Ilan Shamir-

Why Forests Matter

Forests cover almost one third of all land, and there are an estimated 3 trillion trees in the world, equivalent to about 400 trees for every person on the planet. These 400 trees meet essential needs for each of us: they provide clean air, clean water, wood for our houses and our furniture, the paper for our books, and many of the fruits we eat. We often take these ‘ecosystem services’ for granted, but they are under threat. The area of forests world-wide is decreasing by more than 3 million hectares every year, an area the size of Belgium. In particular tropical forests are being replaced to make way for agriculture. That means, for each of us, there are almost two trees less every year.

Europe is blessed with abundant forests, providing a source of inspiration and relaxation.

Many more hectares of forests are severely degraded through over-use. International trade fuels this trend: the main commodities produced on former forest land are palm oil, beef, soy, coffee, cocoa and rice. Much of this is destined for export, including into the European Union. We are all part of the ‘deforestation economy’ and the ecological footprint of the EU is immense. The European institutions have recently started to address this issue, and there are an increasing number of large multi-national companies who have pledged to ensure that all their supplies are sourced deforestation-free by 2020.

Forest Values

Beyond the cultural, spiritual and emotional value that forests and nature hold for many of us, there are plenty of arguments why we should take maintain and restore forests: 

  • Forests absorb carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air and produce clean air for us to breathe. A mature beech tree takes only 20 minutes to emit enough oxygen for an adult human to breathe for a full day, and it can sequester over two tons of CO2 in its branches, trunk and roots, equivalent to the emissions of driving a car for 10,000 kilometers.
  • Forests provide us with the clean water we drink. Two thirds of all major cities in the world rely on forested watersheds as their main source of drinking water, including many European cities like Brussels, which relies on the forests of Wallonia to filter, clean and store billions of liters of water.
  • Forests are home to more animal and plant species than any other ecosystem. More than half of all species that live on land have their home in forests, most of them in moist tropical forests. A single hectare of tropical rainforest can contain up to 300 different tree species, more than in the entire European Union.
  • Forest biodiversity is the source of thousands of commercial products. This includes the basis for one in four pharmaceuticals sold in the EU. Also, much of the world’s energy comes from forests. Africa, for example, sources 80 per cent of its energy for cooking and heating from wood fuel.
  • Forests support the livelihoods of an estimated 1.6 billion people in the world and provide over 14 million jobs. And there are around 300 million people in indigenous and local communities who rely on forests for most of their daily needs.

Why We Can Be Optimistic About Forests

The landmark agreement at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the summit in Paris in December 2015 clearly recognizes the central role forests play for successfully combating and adapting to climate change. It finalized a mechanism known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which encourages developing countries to better manage, conserve or restore their forests.

We are all part of the ‘deforestation economy’ and the ecological footprint of the EU is immense.

Financial incentives can be paid if countries are successful in reducing deforestation. The United Nations is already working with 64 developing countries to initiate sweeping reforms on land-use to successfully reduce deforestation and forest degradation. Moreover, a growing global movement to restore resilient and productive forest landscapes has started, based on ambitious targets in the new ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ of the UN, agreed to by all countries in the world. The target is to restore and reforest degraded lands by the year 2030. More specifically, the ‘New York Declaration on Forests’, signed in September 2014 by 189 nations, companies and organizations, commits to restore 350 million hectares of degraded forest landscapes by 2030. This is an area the size of India. If this goal is reached, it could lift millions of rural people out of poverty, and sequester an additional 1 Gigaton of carbon from the atmosphere, eliminating more emissions than all cars in the world combined are producing. This sounds like a daunting commitment, but it is very feasible if it is supported by a concerted global effort.

The area of forests world-wide is decreasing by more than 3 million hectares every year, an area the size of Belgium.

At the same time, we are getting much better at monitoring the world’s forests. Global platforms like Global Forest Watch provide near real-time, satellite based information about deforestation across the world, even in the most remote tropical regions. These systems are set to improve even further as the EU launches the next generation of their ‘Sentinel’ satellites, which will provide even better forest data. Once these satellites are up and running, projected in the course of 2016, the data will be accessible free of charge, and the criminal networks that are behind illegal logging will not be able to hide, even on a cloudy day.

What You Can Do

There are a few simple things we all can do to ensure that forests both inside and outside of the EU can continue to exist and grow:

Reconnect with nature. Spend time in nature. Learn the names of some of the species living there – and share it with a child. Instilling a deep appreciation for nature in all of us is our best hope in our fight to maintain a healthy environment. Take a walk in the forest, it is a great antidote to stress and fatigue!

Consume with care. The simple phrase of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ has evolved into a sustainable lifestyle approach which now also includes healthy eating habits. For example, producing just one kilogram of beef requires up to 20,000 liters of water, and the soy to feed European cows and pigs is often produced on land that used to be tropical forest. Thus, eating less meat is one of the key measures all of us can take to reduce our global ‘foodprint’. And almost one third of all food that is produced globally goes to waste, almost 1.3 billion tons of food worth 1 trillion Euros. It is thrown away before ever reaching a human stomach, either before reaching markets, or after purchase by consumers. Being conscious of the amount of food we waste, and trying to reduce the waste can help to save forests, and it will definitely save you money. Also, the way you shop can make a difference. Many multi-national companies such as Unilever have pledged a ‘zero deforestation’ policy. Be alert as a consumer to certification labels for food and for forest products, such as the FSC label for sustainable timber.

Take an interest. Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and protecting the world’s forests is predominantly the task of governments. However, they will only act in your and your children’s best interest if we take an active interest in the policies that affect nature and land-use, not only in your own country, but also in the way the EU interacts with the world through trade. Support efforts such as certification schemes, and bans on the import of illegal timber into the EU. On websites such as the ‘Forest 500’ you can learn which companies have the largest footprint on deforestation, and what can be done to improve policies and law enforcement for better forest protection. 

And finally, plant a tree: find a spot where you can plant an indigenous tree, sourced from a reliable tree nursery, or plant a seedling you have grown yourself from an acorn or another tree species in a local forest. Organize tree-planting events together with your community, your urban green space authority, your school, or your local forester. It will not only provide you with a lifelong memory, but it is also great fun for the whole family.


The UN-REDD Program is the United Nations collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) in developing countries. The Program was launched in 2008 and builds on the convening role and technical expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The Program provides support to 64 developing countries, covering almost 60 per cent of the world’s tropical forests.

Tim Christophersen
Head, Nature for Climate Branch, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

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