OPINION: If we are serious about addressing deforestation, the numbers don't stack up

by Nigel Sizer | Rainforest Alliance
Sunday, 21 March 2021 09:12 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman walks next to a burnt tract of the Amazon forest cleared by farmers in Rio Pardo, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 16, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Governments must invest far more in protecting the world's tropical forests, a key ally in warding off climate change and future pandemics

By Nigel Sizer, chief global alliances officer for the Rainforest Alliance.

The UK government just announced its most significant increase in military spending since the Cold War with an additional £24 billion over the next four years compared with last year’s budget. That’s 160 times more than the £150 million announced to ‘save’ the world's rainforests ahead of the UN’s International Day of Forests on March 21.

The funding will, officials say, “help protect about five million acres of rainforests across Africa, Asia and Latin America, an area the size of Wales, and will have the potential to create thousands of green jobs throughout rainforest regions and generate almost £1 billion of green private sector investment to tackle climate change around the world”. 

It sounds like a great deal! Yet, the funding is vastly insufficient to achieve these noble aims as global deforestation continues to rise at an unprecedented rate.

Expanding UK support for rainforest conservation is urgently needed. According to UN chief Antonio Guterres, humans are waging a 'suicidal war' on nature. High on that hit list is Brazil's Amazon region, where deforestation is surging to a 12-year high.  

A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications noted that the Amazon rainforest may be close to a tipping point and could shift to become a savannah instead of a rainforest due to changes in rainfall following forest loss in the region. As one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, it could become a net carbon source, releasing more carbon dioxide than it sequesters and upping the challenge of saving the climate. 

Protecting rainforests will also help to reduce the chances of another COVID-like pandemic. Deforestation and other harmful practices such as the global wildlife trade increase the exposure of humans to the viruses that live in the multitude of species in those forests. Scientists have been warning for years that this increases human exposure to new infectious diseases and makes us more vulnerable to pandemics like the current one caused by the deadly coronavirus COVID-19.


Despite all the rhetoric from Downing Street, is this government serving us in its post-COVID recovery plans? Is it making the right choices to ‘build back better and greener’ and tackle the climate emergency by addressing the root causes of pandemics and the destruction of nature?

How far will £150 million go in reversing global deforestation and catalyzing a global movement? This funding seems vastly insufficient to contribute substantially to the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), which includes targets to end natural forest loss by 2030. The latest Progress Assessment shows that the NYDF is, unfortunately, not on track. Its 50% deforestation reduction by 2020 milestone has been missed.

Being the host of the next annual climate summit, COP26, the UK is expected to help the world get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Yet is it showing the radical leadership needed to address the collapse of our complex ecosystems such as forests?

We’re fast running out of time. We must ensure that our leaders are planning against not just future pandemics but also catastrophic climate change.  These threats are recognized by many leaders, including military ones, as among the most serious in the world today.

As the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere continues to rise, we know that halting deforestation has a massive role to play if we are to reach the objectives set in the 2015 UN Paris Agreement on climate change.

Yet international attention to deforestation has dwindled. The pandemic has dominated the news headlines while the destruction of areas like the Amazon continues unabated.

It is not too late to save what is left of the world’s forests, including the Amazon - but it will require a massive, immediate response from policy makers, businesses, NGOs, local communities and consumers. The effort will have to be focused foremost on halting deforestation and ensuring sustainable forest management, and in a second stage on restoring what’s already been degraded or lost.

Governments, including the UK, must do more heavy lifting to address systemic global issues such as deforestation.

If the UK was serious in its fight against deforestation and climate change, it should consider allocating resources closer to the £24 billion for extra defence than to the £150 million it announced so far.

Meanwhile, everyone can make a difference. Concerned citizens can take small actions, for instance joining forest protection campaigns or preferring products from companies that have no deforestation in their supply chains.

Every day counts in the fight against deforestation.