OPINION: A tragic outcome for the world's forests is not inevitable

by Frances Seymour | World Resources Institute
Tuesday, 20 April 2021 08:19 GMT

A villager carries a bag of rice as he walks on a cable bridge at Lutueng rainforest in Pidie district, Indonesia's Aceh province, November 5, 2009. REUTERS/Tarmizy Harva

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The data on forest loss is still grim but we know what causes deforestation - and the policy tools and market mechanisms that can stop it

The newest data on global forest loss in 2020 is grim: the rate of deforestation sped up in a year when everything else slowed down. We lost 12.2 million hectares of forest in the tropics, an area slightly less than Greece, of which 4.2 million hectares - about the amount of land in Southern Italy - was primary tropical forests, the biodiversity-rich ecosystems that are the world’s safest and most cost-effective planetary cooling machines. 

Yet the 2020 data reveals that a significant cause of tree cover loss in both tropical and temperate zones was the effects of climate change on forests.  One third of Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, burned following an extended drought, and severe hurricanes in Central America and fires, especially in Bolivia and Australia, contributed to forest loss. 

The commercial expansion of agriculture to meet global demand for commodities such as beef, soy, palm oil, timber, and cocoa remains the most significant cause of deforestation. Much of this forest exploitation is illegal, and extends into national parks, indigenous territories, and other areas that are supposed to be protected. 

This loss is not inevitable. We know what causes deforestation, and the policy tools and market mechanisms that can slow and reverse it. Here are five things that governments and companies should do now to stop forest loss:

Ensure that post-pandemic economic recovery packages are truly green: Governments emerging from 2020’s global economic contraction deep in debt and low on fiscal resources may be tempted to cut the budgets of environmental agencies and encourage investments in agricultural development and infrastructure that put forests at risk. 

A recent report documents how the weakening of protective regulations in five forest-rich countries - Brazil, Colombia, DRC, and Indonesia and Peru - already threatens indigenous peoples and their forested territories. 

Yet an IMF working paper shows that investments in nature conservation and restoration are actually superior economic stimulus measures. Forest-friendly strategies would also reduce the chances of another pandemic spilling out of disturbed forest ecosystems. Donor governments and multilateral financial institutions should provide assistance and debt relief in ways that value forests. 

Pay governments for successfully reducing forest-based emissions: The Paris Agreement lays out how wealthy nations can deliver results-based payments to developing countries that reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. 

A key outcome of the Glasgow climate summit later this year should be a clear signal of both public and private sector demand for carbon credits from forest protection - at an attractive price. Certainty of financial reward will help governments undertake the difficult measures necessary to enforce the law and uproot vested interests in deforestation-as-usual practices. 

Indonesia’s four-year streak of reduced rates of forest loss show that command-and-control policy initiatives can make a difference.

Get deforestation out of commodity supply chains and financial portfolios: It is no longer acceptable for companies or financial institutions to pursue business models that are based on forest destruction, especially illegal exploitation and conversion.

Many large brands have already made commitments to stop sourcing beef, palm oil, soy, cocoa and other commodities from recently deforested land, and are making progress on implementing those commitments. For example, Unilever is reporting on milestones toward its goal of eliminating deforestation from its supply chain by 2023.

These new norms need to be extended to mid-size companies and large emerging market economies through market regulation, trade measures and diplomacy.

The European Union is currently designing measures to promote deforestation-free supply chains based on a 2010 regulation to exclude illegally harvested timber from its market.

Amplify the voices and strengthen the rights of domestic constituencies for forest protection: Tropical forest protection is often misperceived as an agenda imposed by industrialized countries at the expense of developing country goals. While intact forests certainly serve global objectives for climate and biodiversity protection, it’s local communities who tend to suffer worst from forest loss. 

Local governments are increasingly recognizing that forests stabilize local climates by cooling temperatures and generating rainfall.  And indigenous communities – whose success in protecting forests can be seen from satellites – are among the most vocal advocates for forest protection. Forest loss goes hand-in-hand with the constricting of political space for civil society advocates and the failure to protect environmental defenders.

Dramatically reduce emissions from all sources now: To break out of a vicious cycle of the burning and decay of trees accelerating global warming, all governments and companies need to strengthen their targets for reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels and from land-use change, with enhanced targets in place by Glasgow. Otherwise, our natural carbon sinks will go up in smoke.

Heroes in Greek and Shakespearean tragedies often face impossible choices and are at the mercy of factors beyond their control. By contrast, the international community can avert tragic loss of the world's forests by taking heroic actions now.

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