Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the Alliance for Rainforests event, in New York today:
Our world’s forests are on fire. As we meet today, thick smog is choking tens of thousands of hectares of forest in Indonesia. Fires are still raging in the Amazon, affecting millions of acres of rainforest. Recent satellite imagery also showed a vast red zone of fire in Africa’s Congo Basin. Even the Arctic Circle was ablaze earlier this summer.
In June, Arctic fires emitted 50 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. July produced another 79 megatons — double the previous record for a single month. By August, the cloud of soot staining the Arctic sky was bigger than the European Union.
Rich and poor countries alike are feeling the heat. Let us not forget last November’s fires in California, which caused more than $16 billion in economic losses — the largest on record for a wildfire globally.
As the atmosphere fills with smoke and ash, our future grows dark. Deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate: every year, 7 million hectares of forest are lost. These are not localized disasters but part of a global threat.
We will not overcome the climate emergency without safeguarding our planet’s very lungs.
These fires not only contribute to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide, but also destroy trees and vegetation that act as a carbon sink and actively remove these emissions from our air. We cannot afford more damage to such a vital source of oxygen and biodiversity.
For many forest-rich countries, it is deforestation, and not fossil fuel use, that is the major source of carbon emissions. This means that reducing deforestation and forest degradation is central to our efforts to close the emissions gap and keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C.
Of course, forests bring benefits beyond the climate battle. Through the rivers they feed, forests are responsible for half our cities’ drinking water. They are a source of livelihoods and economic sustainability. And they support agriculture across whole continents by regulating weather.
Forests also act as a natural buffer, and when that buffer is removed, we can have disastrous consequences. The ongoing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest threatens to deny rain to farmers hundreds of miles away in Brazil’s agricultural heartland. In South-East Asia, fires set to clear land have generated a prolonged haze that has led schools to close and people to fear for their health.
And earlier this year in Mozambique, deforestation amplified the effects of Cyclone Idai. With fewer trees, wind speeds increased, and water absorption into the ground decreased dramatically. The subsequent destruction from the cyclone and flooding cost more than 600 lives.
Halting deforestation and restoring degraded forests are global imperatives. For every dollar spent restoring degraded forests, as much as 30 can be recouped in economic benefits and poverty reduction. Restoring degraded lands means better lives and income for farmers and herders, and less pressure to migrate to cities.
We must change the way we farm and rebalance the global food system by growing food without destroying large tracts of forest. We must improve forest management and reforestation to reap the benefits of carbon sequestration. We must provide more investments in forests and put a value on forest carbon. And we must speed up our transition to a cleaner, greener future, with a healthy forest system at its core.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the vital role of forests, as does the Paris Agreement on climate change, along with all other United Nations conventions and programmes. Forests will also figure prominently at today’s Climate Action Summit as part of our discussion on nature-based solutions.
As the ferocity of this summer’s wildfires and heatwaves shows, we need to protect and grow our forests now before fires consume our future.