Opinion: Why action on forests now is essential to all our futures.

While forests once provided subsistence for local people, for generations clearing forested land has also been good for global business, providing immediate food security for the world. Put simply, forests have been worth more dead than alive.

As populations grow, emerging and industrialised countries are looking to the three great world forest regions _ the Three Basins of the Congo, the Amazon and south-east Asia _ for their growing resource needs. The economic imperative to acquire and clear more land increases daily as demand for food and commodities grows. More than half of the global forest loss has occurred in the Three Basins. But world food production needs standing forests not felled trees.

And forests are not about food: they .provide protection for local communities against catastrophic flooding and erosion during rainy seasons. The forests of the Three Basins act as huge carbon capture and storage units, drawing down around 10% of annual greenhouse gas emissions every year. They are the planet’s principal defence against climate change _ a fact that is often lost amid a debate about climate change that focuses almost entirely on fossil fuels. Destroying the forests makes our climate unstable and unpredictable, with increasing desert areas and more extreme weather. Conversely, addressing forest use in the Three Basins has huge potential to limit future damage from climate change.

Clearly, we need to stop damaging the world’s forests but this is not as easy as it sounds. In the same way as fossil fuels are deeply embedded in the way countries develop, so is a centuries-old model of land use in which forested land is seen as a resource to be exploited. Stopping forest destruction overnight is neither possible nor desirable, as it would cause the price and availability of food and other commodities to rocket.

However, it is possible to get the balance right.

Brazil is already showing what is possible. By reducing deforestation by two thirds since 2004, Brazil has avoided an estimated 1bn tonnes of CO2 emissions _ few people know that this is a larger reduction in emissions than any other country has managed. This hasn’t come at the cost of economic growth: at the same time, Brazil has lifted 10 million citizens out of poverty and continues to supply the world with food such as beef and soy, and other resources. My own country, Guyana, is maintaining 99.5% of our forest, while investing heavily in new economic sectors that take pressure off the forests over the long term. Many other forest countries in the Three Basins are willing to act. Ambitious national proposals have been made. Many, including Vietnam, Gabon and the Republic of Congo have detailed plans in place, backed by high-level political commitment.

If countries are ready to act: how do we deliver development, reduce poverty and feed increasing numbers of people while protecting the climate? The challenge is to invest in a new model of land use that addresses the drivers of forest loss, develops alternative sources of income and employment for forest communities, and meets the increasing demand for global food security This means decoupling poverty alleviation and economic growth from deforestation, much in the same way as the world is beginning to separate economic growth from fossil fuel use.

But this is difficult and expensive _ and everyone who benefits need to share in paying for the valuable services forests provide. We need to make forests worth more alive than dead.

In 2009 in Copenhagen, hopes were high for a forest-financing mechanism as part of a global climate deal which would recognise the climate services provided by those forests. Pledges were made to mobilise $100bn (ᆪ65bn) of new funding a year by 2020. But despite the urgency, the process has stalled. Brazil and Guyana are showing what is possible when international partnership materialise: in both cases, Norway is paying for some of the avoided greenhouse gas emissions. But beyond Brazil, Guyana, and Indonesia, forest countries are faced with a reality that funds have been delayed; they are beginning to question whether a deal is possible. Such slow progress puts millions of lives and livelihoods at risk in every part of the world. My consultation across the Three Basins has shown that without the prospect of sufficient, secure, predictable finance it will be hard to resist growth through the continued destruction of forests.

A deal doesn’t just make sense for food and the planet: it offers a new way of partnering for development. The west invests in forest-friendly economic growth and gets something in return _ less exposure to weather-related damage, cheaper insurance premiums, and a lower need to invest in flood and other climate defences. A fair payment for the services provided by forests supports a forest country’s own efforts towards development and poverty alleviation, creating the catalyst for private investment, entrepreneurship and sustainable employment. In return, new markets for food and resources are developed, trade increases and we deliver climate change targets. This will not just bring momentum and confidence to these commitments, but will divert private capital away from deforestation towards maintaining forests sustainably.

International community should commit to deliver on existing pledges, including commitments to ramp up support for Three Basins countries to develop new forest-friendly economies as part of global efforts to combat hunger, nutrition and climate change. Just by delivering a fraction of funds that have already been promised _ we estimate 9% _ richer nations could kick start a change that benefits us all.