Will the COP26 global deforestation pledge really save forests?

Skepticism is warranted. But billions of pounds have been promised—and new data on carbon emissions provide grounds for hope.

Published 5 Nov 2021, 16:57 GMT
cop26-deforestation
A global deal to end deforestation, reached at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, is seen as a positive development, though critics say details are scant.
Photograph by Josh Cogan, Nat Geo Image Collection

The announcement this week of a multinational commitment to end deforestation by 2030 seems, on the face of it, a cause for celebration. But there are concerns that the declaration may be another empty promise and that, without concrete action, deforestation will continue and even accelerate.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greeted the pact with predictable enthusiasm. “These great teeming ecosystems—these pillared cathedrals of nature—are the lungs of our planet,” he proclaimed in Glasgow, site of this year’s UN climate summit, COP26, which runs through November 12. “Let’s work together to not just protect the forest but to ensure that forests return.”

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), if tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide on Earth. Additionally, on balance, the world’s forests are carbon sinks, removing approximately 7.6 billion tons of carbon—roughly 20 percent of global emissions—from the atmosphere each year. An agreement to remove those emissions and protect that carbon sink would be a significant achievement for the conference Johnson's government is hosting.

It would be of even greater importance given that, according to data announced Thursday by the Global Carbon Project, global fossil CO2 emissions are expected to grow 4.9 percent in 2021—almost erasing the 5.4 percent COVID-related decline in 2020. Coal and gas use this year are actually expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels.

Some observers welcomed the Glasgow declaration on forests, albeit more cautiously than Johnson did.

“There is no path to net zero emissions without addressing tropical forests,” Julia Jones, a conservation scientist at Bangor University in Wales, said. “So, to have everyone come together and address this so early in the conference, with so many people at the table, is so important.”

Of particular significance, Jones added, is the fact that the words are being backed up by “real money.”

Although details of disbursement have not yet been provided, the declaration includes a Global Forest Finance Pledge, under which 11 countries and the European Union committed to provide £9 billion in funding “to help unleash the potential of forests and sustainable land use.”

Additionally, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he would approach Congress to contribute $9 billion (£6.6 billion) more between now and 2030. Private-sector funding will add $7.2 billion (£5 billion), and 14 governmental and private donors have committed $1.7 billion (£1.3 billion) between 2021 and 2025 to “support the advancement of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ forest tenure rights and greater recognition and rewards for their role as guardians of forests and nature.”

Reasons to be wary

But precedent suggests that the new pledge should be met with a large helping of skepticism. In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests also set a target of no deforestation by 2030, with an interim goal of a 50 percent reduction by 2020. A 2019 study found that rates of forest loss were 41 percent higher in the years after that declaration than in those preceding it, and that an area the size of the United Kingdom was being lost annually.

And although 40 nations were among the New York declaration’s endorsers, the two countries with the most extensive forest area—Brazil and Russia—were not among them. They were, however, on board in Glasgow, as was the country with the fifth highest amount of forest, China. In all, the 131 countries that have signed the declaration so far account for 90 percent of the forest cover on Earth.

But some of those signatures have prompted cynicism—particularly that of Brazil. Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, deforestation rates in the country have reached a 12-year high, prompting a group of academics and environmental activists to warn in July that the Amazon rainforest would “collapse” if he remained president.

Two days after the declaration was announced, Indonesia—one of the most heavily forested countries—seemed to walk back its commitment.

“Forcing Indonesia to (reach) zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair,” the country’s Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Twitter on Wednesday. Development, she continued, “must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation.”

Adding to the confusion, the country’s vice foreign minister, Mahendra Sinegar, denied on Thursday that zero deforestation was even part of the Glasgow pledge, telling Reuters that his country interpreted it as a commitment to “sustainable forest management ... not end deforestation by 2030.”

This highlighted one apparently glaring ambiguity in the declaration: What exactly did it mean by its commitment “to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation”? According to one interpretation, for example, the removal of forests may not technically be deforestation if the land is not developed into other commercial uses, or if it’s replanted as tree plantations for, say, wood pellets.

According to Diana Ruiz, senior forests campaigner for Greenpeace USA, the Indonesian statements highlight that the Glasgow declaration is big on promises and short on specifics.

“There isn’t any clarity, or alignment between the countries that just signed,” she said. “There is no framework on how they will meet their targets. Standing up on an international stage and making a statement that countries will end deforestation before a certain date doesn’t take into account the real nuts and bolts of it. How will it happen? What are the targets? What does this mean for countries like Indonesia and Brazil, which are introducing policies that encourage more deforestation that contradict what they just pledged?”

Instead of a bold declaration, Ruiz said forests need rapidly implemented action on the ground.

“For example, Indonesia didn’t renew its palm oil moratorium. It could have extended that,” she said. With Malaysia, Indonesia produces 85 to 90 percent of the world’s palm oil. Its 2018 moratorium on permits for new plantations—the most immediate threat to tropical forests in the region—expired in September.

It’s also notable that, despite the commitment to supporting Indigenous rights in the declaration, Indigenous activists in Glasgow protested that they were not being included in the process and were being “romanticised and tokenised.”

Bending the curve

Reducing and even halting deforestation is possible. Global deforestation rates have declined, decade on decade, since their peak of the 1980s; for the past 30 years, temperate forests have seen a continued increase in forest cover. Costa Rica has been paying farmers to protect forests.

As a result of combined pressure from Greenpeace Brazil and the Brazil Federal Prosecutors’ Office, Brazil experienced its lowest ever Amazon deforestation rates between 2009 and 2014, before political and economic crises, followed by Bolsonaro-era policies, caused them to increase again.

On the other hand, the preliminary numbers in the new Global Carbon Project report offer some very hopeful news. The researchers on the project had previously estimated that carbon emissions from deforestation and other land-use changes had increased by about 35 percent since 2000. But their revised estimate replaces that increase with a decrease of about the same size, largely because cropland expansion into tropical forests, in Brazil and elsewhere, has apparently been less than previously thought.

If the new numbers hold up, it would mean that global CO2 output may have been essentially flat for the past decade—in spite of this year’s post-COVID surge in emissions. In any case, the research is yet another indicator of how big a difference halting deforestation could make.

“Forests are important for two reasons,” Jones explained. One is the carbon that is locked up in them is released when the forests are cleared. The other is the carbon the trees absorb out of the air each year—thus buffering some of our emissions.

On a net basis, Jones said, forests worldwide are absorbing more carbon than they are releasing. But some areas—for example the Brazilian Amazon, and even some UNESCO World Heritage Sites—are now producing more carbon than they are absorbing. That, Jones observed, “is a real problem.”

The potential for disaster is particularly acute in forests that grow in carbon-rich peat soils, which can contain even more carbon than the trees they support. That is one reason why particular attention in Glasgow has been paid to the world’s second biggest rainforest, in the Congo Basin, to which governments and private donors have committed $1.5 billion (£1.1 billion). Recent studies have found that peatlands cover 4 percent of the basin’s forested area and contain as much carbon as the remaining 96 percent.

“There is no denying that on a global scale, we need the peat forests in the Congo Basin to keep standing,” Jones said. “They are providing a service to humanity that we cannot afford to be without.”

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