World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Aerial view of forest in Peru

Planting trees is good. Saving existing forests is better. Protecting people and nature is best.

  • Date: 28 April 2020
  • Author: Martha Stevenson, Senior Director, Forest Strategy & Research and Linda Walker, Senior Director, Corporate Engagement, Forests

Nature-based solutions and corporate goal setting for forests and climate.

While uncertainties and disruption associated with COVID-19 abound, many leadership companies are still moving forward with the important process of drafting their 2020-2030 sustainability goals. Companies leading the pack recognize the importance of integrating sustainability and business goals, given the close link between environmental and business risks highlighted by the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020.

Many companies are also seeking to deliver on their climate and other sustainability commitments via “nature-based solutions¹” by prioritizing forests. But they are grappling with questions around the scale of their ambition; how to “do the math” to credibly connect nature-based actions with their environmental footprint; and how to build innovation, resilience, and adaptation into their goals in light of what will certainly be a more uncertain future.

There is no question that corporate action to help protect, restore, and improve the management of the world’s forests can make a meaningful difference. In fact, those actions can address up to 20% of the current climate crisis by 2050. And there is an exciting wave of interest among companies that want to seize this opportunity to take action for forests—often together with other companies, even competitors—in ways that deliver against their climate and other sustainability goals.

Corporate action will be most effective if integrated and aligned with a broader agenda. Deforestation and forest degradation are still rampant globally. This reality continues to undermine climate stability, biodiversity, global health, and economic prosperity. Unless all nations and all sectors of society collaborate, more frequent and severe weather events and disease outbreaks will become the new normal. The question is no longer whether or not action is needed. Instead, leaders are trying to determine what actions, in what places, at what scale, and with what partners are most important to prioritize.

At WWF, based on our extensive on-the-ground efforts in countries and important forest landscapes across the globe, our work within international policy, and our connection with companies in forest and land-intensive sectors, we have developed the following specific, step-by-step guidance to assist companies in setting forest and climate goals for 2030 and beyond.

1. Assess Your Impact and Apply the Mitigation Hierarchy

Since we published our "Forest Positive" guidance in 2017, much has happened to support forest corporate target setting, assessment, and action planning. Remote-sensing tools and mapping capabilities have advanced, guidance on deforestation policies was issued, new climate and nature targets are being developed, and carbon accounting guidelines for land-intensive sectors have been issued and are being codified into the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. These new tools make it easier to harness your direct influence, but where to start after your assessment is complete?

Mitigation hierarchies have been a cornerstone of natural resource management and corporate footprint reduction strategies for decades, and it’s no different today. Using climate mitigation or biodiversity conservation hierarchies (i.e., Avoid/Protect, Reduce, Restore, Compensate²) can be an incredibly helpful way to prioritize sustainability actions within your own operations (Scope 1) and supply chain (Scope 3). These mitigation hierarchies emphasize that companies need to start by reducing their footprint (e.g., reducing fossil fuel emissions or implementing responsible commodity sourcing that avoids deforestation and forest degradation) before jumping to compensation mechanisms like purchasing carbon offsets or forest restoration. Doing differently could be clearly seen as greenwash. Efforts like the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and Science-Based Targets Network that translate global climate and nature to company- and city-level targets are well-aligned with these hierarchical approaches and thus offer a robust framework for developing future plans for your companies and setting targets informed by nature.

For companies, our recommendation is to focus on reducing emissions and forest impact within their operations and supply chain first before looking into restoration activities such as tree planting as compensation measures.

2. Design Actions to Deliver on Multiple Goals

When prioritizing forest solutions, companies should consider where they can have the highest positive impact by delivering on multiple environmental and/or social outcomes and aligning those actions with their other corporate values (e.g., actions in critical sourcing geographies, human health outcomes, species conservation, healthy water supply, etc.). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment outline the need for any nature-based investments to deliver on multiple environmental outcomes, including: climate mitigation, climate adaptation, land degradation, food security, and biodiversity conservation. Forests present unparalleled opportunities for delivering on all of these beneficial outcomes and aligning with something bigger. Solutions include strengthening forest protection, avoiding deforestation, enhancing forest-dependent livelihoods, improving forest management, and supporting agroforestry and forest landscape restoration.

Our recommendation is that supporting protection of existing forests should generally be prioritized over restoration activities such as tree planting. While the role of forest restoration in supporting climate, biodiversity, and community goals is extremely critical, and increased interest is encouraging, it’s important to remember that protecting existing forests can often achieve much more in terms of delivering these outcomes. According to one study, preventing the loss of one hectare of mature, carbon, and biodiversity-rich forests will typically avoid emissions of about 100 tons of carbon, while tropical reforestation typically sequesters about 3% of that, or 3 metric tons of carbon, per hectare each year. This means that, in a given year, as much as 30 times more land is needed for reforestation to generate the same climate mitigation outcome as avoided deforestation in the first place (Griscom et al., 2017). Additionally, forest protection efforts typically cost about half as much as intensive forest restoration efforts (highly place-specific), which is all the more reason to redouble efforts to address deforestation. Improved forest management—particularly using the Forest Stewardship Council standards—plays a key role in maintaining carbon stocks, habitat, and other forest and social values. Science and economics agree that where possible, it’s best to keep the forests intact and healthy before trying to recreate nature.

3. Conduct Carbon Credit Due Diligence and Support Country Commitments

Once a company is on track with its strategy to Avoid, Protect, and Reduce, exploring options in the forest sector to compensate for residual emissions is a strategic way to further its goals. It’s difficult to assess the risks and impacts of any investment, and forests are no different. This is further complicated by the fact that it is not entirely clear how voluntary carbon credit purchases (which could come from the land sector) might be treated under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement—which is often referred to as the carbon markets provision of the agreement. Further, corporate guidance for land-sector emissions is a work in progress. World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are at the helm of developing three new Greenhouse Gas Protocol standards on carbon removals and land-sector emissions, and WWF is leading the development of SBTI pathways for land-intensive sectors—all of which will have significant implications for what companies can and cannot “count” in their targets and corporate inventories.

Since getting it wrong can create financial, legal, and reputational risks, companies should look for sound investments in forests that adhere to the below criteria:

  • Align carbon credit purchases with the quality criteria listed in “WWF’s position and guidance on voluntary purchases of carbon credits,” which includes the carbon credit quality criteria (Be real - Be measurable - Be additional - Be permanent - Avoid leakage - Be monitored, reported, and verified - Comply with social and environmental safeguards*); and
  • For forest conservation investments such as restoration in REDD+ countries, ensure that forest carbon crediting programs and projects and other jurisdictional-scale efforts are aligned with country strategies and baselines submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and/or with countries' Nationally Determined Contributions**. This approach supports scales that leverage public finance, private investments, and markets to multiply impact and will limit social and financial risk exposure. Linking efforts to these existing instruments also increases the chances for the long-term sustainability of corporate interventions.

For our investments to yield meaningful benefits that endure, we need to support transformational change that’s embedded socially, economically, politically, even culturally—and rooted in people and nature.

4. Seek Lasting, Transformational Change

Many of the major sustainability science syntheses of the past four years (IPCC SR1.5, IPBES GA, IPCC SRCCL) have stressed the need for transformational change to our economic production and consumption systems. Thus, we promote the expansion of the mitigation hierarchy to include an additional step: Transform. The importance of transformation is increasingly recognized as vital to success in the climate and deforestation agendas, given the roadblocks we have met in implementation on the ground. Like Goal 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals, strong governance, multi-actor coalitions, capacity building, and good science are needed to deliver lasting change, and not all of these actions are quantifiable as CO2 equivalents or hectares. These actions can include things like: a) improving land tenure for Indigenous people and local communities, such as in San Martin and Ucalayi, Peru; b) participating in public-private, multistakeholder initiatives driving improved land policies and planning like those led by Forever Sabah in Malaysia through jurisdictional approaches to zero deforestation; and c) supporting farmers, like in Colombia, with better growing practices so that they can maximize yields and minimize conversion of forests and other ecosystems. For our investments to yield meaningful benefits that endure, we need to support transformational change that’s embedded socially, economically, politically, even culturally—and rooted in people and nature, literally.

Actions by all of us—companies, non-governmental organizations, governments, institutions, communities, and individuals—will determine our ability to maintain a livable planet that thrives for people, nature, and business. Companies that prioritize environmental footprint reductions first, align forest and climate-related goals with science and country commitments, and take collaborative action in landscapes to support transformational change will be best positioned looking out to 2030 and beyond. Together, it’s possible.

If you’re interested in learning more about WWF’s work with corporate partners on forests, visit our Forest Sector Transformation & Valuation site.


¹Nature-based solutions are actions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems in ways that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively to provide human well-being and biodiversity benefits. IUCN, 2016.

²Avoid/Protect: measures taken to avoid creating impacts from the outset or to set aside key areas (avoiding High Conservation Value areas, stopping deforestation, or demand-side reduction).
: measures taken to reduce the intensity and/or extent of impacts that cannot be completely avoided (e.g., reduced logging intensities, skid-trail planning).
: measures taken to restore degraded ecosystems (e.g., natural regeneration, active forest restoration).
: measures taken to compensate for any significant residual, adverse impacts that cannot be avoided, reduced, and/or restored. Note: WWF discourages use of the term “offset” for two reasons: 1) It implies an equivalency present in accounting but not in the natural environment; and 2) It erodes transparency as “offsets" are typically netted out to obscure impacts/emissions. We recommend that impacts AND compensation actions be fully disclosed to lead to the most robust resource/impact management opportunities.

³Envisioning the voluntary carbon market post-2020. A new working group statement will be published in May 2020.

*NB: WWF, Environmental Defense Fund, and Oeko Institut will launch updated carbon credit quality criteria by May 2020 as part of the Carbon Credit Guidance for Buyers project.

**Nationally Determined Contributions are efforts put forward to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.