Kuala Lumpur: A new pledge by world leaders to halt deforestation by 2030 is likely to fail unless quickly backed by more funding, transparent monitoring and tough regulation of businesses and financiers linked to forest destruction, environmentalists warn.
More than 100 global leaders late Monday pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade, underpinned by $19 billion in public and private funds to invest in protecting and restoring forests.
The commitment – made at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow – included countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo which collectively account for the majority of the world’s tropical forests.
While broadly welcomed, many conservationists noted that similar zero deforestation pledges had repeatedly been made and not met by both governments and businesses.
Those include the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), the United Nations sustainability goals and targets set by global household brands.
“While the Glasgow Declaration has an impressive range of signatories from across forest-rich countries, large consumer markets and financial centres, it nevertheless risks being a reiteration of previous failed commitments if it lacks teeth,” said Jo Blackman, head of forests policy and advocacy at London-based Global Witness.
“The question is whether (the) headline-grabbing announcements on deforestation will end up amounting to more of the same empty promises or if they will be followed up with the real regulatory action that is so urgently needed.”
Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb warming, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-heating carbon emissions produced worldwide, but release the carbon they store when they rot or are burned.
Forests also provide food and livelihoods, help clean air and water, support human health, are an essential habitat for wildlife, regulate rainfall and offer flood protection.
Last year, an area of tropical forest the size of the Netherlands was lost, according to monitoring service Global Forest Watch.
Although deforestation rates have fallen over the last two decades, about 10 million hectares are still lost each year, said Tim Christophersen, who leads the United Nations Environment Programme’s nature-for-climate branch.
“There is no shortage of these political commitments,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “What there is a shortage of is the money and political will to make them happen.”
Missing laws – and rights
The 2014 New York declaration, backed by more than 200 countries, companies and green groups, sought to at least cut in half losses of natural forests by 2020 and then end deforestation by 2030.
Kiki Taufik, global head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s Indonesian forests campaign, said the pledge committed to restoring an area of forests and cropland larger than India by 2030.
Instead, forests the size of Spain have been destroyed for commodities like soy and palm oil since 2010.
“We need an immediate end to deforestation, backed up by water-tight domestic laws and policies which (can) recognise the land rights of local and indigenous peoples, properly protect forests, eliminate deforestation through supply chains and start to phase out industrial meat and dairy,” he added.
An additional slew of government and private initiatives were announced on Tuesday in Glasgow to help reach the new declaration’s 2030 goal, including billions in pledges for indigenous groups and sustainable agriculture.
Fran Raymond Price, global forest practice lead at green group WWF International, welcomed the fresh commitments, saying they acknowledged the important value of forests and other natural ecosystems.
But “what we need now is urgent action and implementation of these commitments, coupled with time-bound targets and a common transparent framework for monitoring and verification of such targets. There’s no time to waste,” she added.
Gabonese President Ali Bongo said effectively protecting forest also required overcoming other challenges such as combatting the organised crime rings that help drive deforestation in his African nation.
Preventing forest loss “requires consistent vigilance” as well as new technology, cash and skilled forest managers, Bongo said in Glasgow.
Ensuring Africans benefit from their forests is also key to their protection, said Bongo, whose country remains 88% forested as a result of concerted conservation efforts.
Under the Glasgow agreement, 12 countries will provide $12 billion of public funding between 2021 and 2025 to help developing countries cut deforestation, restore degraded land and tackle wildfires.
At least a further $7 billion will be provided by more than 30 private sector investors.
“Funding should … only reward real and substantial action taken by rainforest countries and those who respect the rights of indigenous people and local communities,” said Toerris Jaeger, secretary general of the Oslo-based Rainforest Foundation Norway.
He called for immediate action and improved policies to tackle deforestation by all governments involved in the declaration.
Globally, about 35% of protected natural areas are owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous and local communities, yet such groups are rarely considered in the design of conservation and climate programmes, according to researchers at Stanford University.
Ray Minniecon, an Australian aboriginal pastor at COP26, said a lack of indigenous representatives in policy planning and negotiations was one reason efforts to protect land often didn’t work.
“Indigenous peoples know how to look after country, how to care for it and heal it and heal the people. Why aren’t we at the table?” he asked.
Rod Taylor, global director of forests at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, said that to achieve success the Glasgow pledge would need significant new financing, as well as transparent monitoring, reporting and verification of its goals.
Restoring the millions of hectares of land deforested annually would cost an estimated $6 billion per year according to the Center for International Forestry Research.
Although having more than 30 financial institutions sign the new pledge is a positive sign, many large banks not involved are among the biggest investors in deforestation-linked firms, said Danny Marks, an assistant professor of environmental politics at Ireland’s Dublin City University.
“For the pledge to be successful … these banks must be penalised or even better forbidden to lend to agribusiness companies that drive deforestation and have been implicated in human rights violations,” Marks said.
To help avoid the new pledge meeting the fate of previously unmet zero-deforestation commitments, governments must implement a step-change in transparency to include full disclosure of forest and land permits and the origins of commodities, WRI’s Taylor said.
Support for smaller farmers to adopt more sustainable practices is also key, as are trade agreements that promote deforestation-free agriculture and infrastructure, he said.
Green groups say production of commodities and minerals drives many natural losses, with carbon-storing forests cleared for plantations, ranches, farms and mines.
Environmentalists have also criticised low levels of funding committed by rich countries to help developing nations develop in a green way, leaving many leaders relying on harvesting natural resources to bolster their economies and lift people out of poverty.
Gemma Tillack, forest policy director at US-based nonprofit Rainforest Action Network, said inaction by consumer brands, banks, and governments to push forest protection in countries where they procure goods was driving the loss of “our last line of defence against climate change”.
“The pledge cannot be taken seriously if it does not require all parties to disclose proof of the actions taken to immediately halt deforestation and degradation and respect land rights across all forest-risk commodity sectors,” Tillack added.
Featured image: A view shows a deforested plot of Brazilian Amazon rainforest near the Transamazonica national highway, in Apui, Amazonas state, Brazil, September 6, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Bruno Kelly
(Thomson Reuters Foundation)