Global Leaders Pledge to End Deforestation by 2030
Leaders of more than 100 countries, including Brazil, China, Russia and the United States, vowed at climate talks in Glasgow to end deforestation by 2030, in a landmark agreement that encompasses some 85 percent of the world’s forests.
“These great teeming ecosystems — these cathedrals of nature — are the lungs of our planet,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said in describing the pact on Tuesday at an event attended by President Biden and the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo.
The pledge will demand “transformative further action,” the declaration said, to preserve forests crucial to absorbing carbon dioxide and slowing the pace of global warming. But while it was accompanied by several measures intended to help put it into effect, some advocacy groups criticized the agreement as lacking teeth, saying it would allow deforestation to continue and noting that similar efforts have failed in the past.
At the heart of the plan is the effort to reduce the lucrative financial incentives to cut down forests. Much of the world’s deforestation is driven by the world’s demand for food, driving people to fell trees to make room for cattle, soy, cocoa and palm oil.
The agreement brings together countries including Brazil, where deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere has spiked in recent years. But as often happens in diplomatic negotiations, securing widespread buy-in that entices the most critical countries to join comes with potential weaknesses.
“It allows another decade of forest destruction, and isn’t binding,” said Carolina Pasquali, executive director of Greenpeace Brazil. “Meanwhile, the Amazon is already on the brink and can’t survive years more deforestation.”
Nevertheless the pledge underscores a growing awareness of the role of nature in tackling the climate crisis, something Britain has sought to highlight at the climate summit, known as COP26. Intact forests and peatlands are natural storehouses of carbon, keeping it sealed away from the atmosphere, where as carbon dioxide it speeds warming by trapping the sun’s heat. But when these areas are logged, burned or drained, the ecosystems switch to releasing greenhouse gases.
If tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, according to the World Resources Institute. Only China and the United States emit more.
Twelve governments committed $12 billion, and private companies pledged $7 billion, to protect and restore forests in a variety of ways, including $1.7 billion for Indigenous peoples. More than 30 financial institutions also vowed to stop investing in companies responsible for deforestation. And a new set of guidelines offers a path toward eliminating deforestation from supply chains.
President Biden said he would work with Congress to deploy up to $9 billion to the global effort through 2030. “Preserving forests and other ecosystems can and should play an important role in meeting our ambitious climate goals,” he said.
While that number fell short of a campaign trail promise of $20 billion for the Amazon, it represents a vast increase on past efforts from the United States. Any money related to climate change, though, would likely face opposition from Republicans.
Several policy experts called the suite of measures an important step forward, while emphasizing that far more is needed. “The financial announcements we’ve heard in Glasgow are welcome but remain small compared to the enormous private and public flows — often in the sense of subsidies — that drive deforestation,” said Frances Seymour of the World Resources Institute, a research group.
Previous efforts to protect forests have struggled or failed.
One program recognized in the Paris climate accord, the agreement among nations to work together in an effort to fight climate change, seeks to pay forested nations for reducing tree loss. But progress stalled. In 2014, an international pact known as the New York Declaration on Forests aimed to end deforestation by 2030, and a United Nations plan announced three years later, built on that pledge, yet deforestation continued.
Supporters of the new agreement point out that it expands the number of countries and comes with specific steps to save forests.
“What we’re doing here is trying to change the economics on the ground to make forests worth more alive than dead,” said Eron Bloomgarden, whose group, Emergent, helps match public and private investors with forested countries and provinces looking to receive payments for reducing deforestation.
The participating governments promised “support for smallholders, Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who depend on forests for their livelihoods and have a key role in their stewardship.”
A growing body of research shows that nature is healthier on the more than quarter of the world’s lands that Indigenous people manage or own. But they receive less than one percent of the climate funding aimed at reducing deforestation in tropical countries, according to Rainforest Foundation Norway.
Tuntiak Katan, the general coordinator of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities and a member of the Shuar people in Amazonian Ecuador, praised the support for Indigenous and local communities but questioned throwing money at a system he sees as broken. “If this financing doesn’t work directly, and shoulder to shoulder, with Indigenous peoples, it’s not going to have the necessary impact,” he said.
The value of healthy forests goes far beyond their ability to store away carbon. They filter water, cool the air and even make rain, supporting agriculture elsewhere. They are also fundamental to sustaining biodiversity, which is suffering its own crisis as extinction rates climb. This year, though, scientists found that parts of the Amazon have begun emitting more carbon than they absorb, as drier conditions and increased deforestation led to more fires and a degraded ecosystem.
China is one of the biggest signatories to the deforest declaration, but the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, did not attend the climate negotiations in Glasgow. China suffered heavy forest losses as its population and industry grew over the past decades, though more recently, it has pledged to regrow forests and to expand sustainable tree farming.
By China’s estimate, forests now cover about 23 percent of its land mass, up from 17 percent in 1990, according to the World Bank. Though some research has questioned the scale and the quality of that expanded tree cover, the government has made expanded reforestation a pillar of its climate policies, and many areas of the country are notably greener than they were a couple of decades ago.
Still, China’s participation in the new pledge may also test its dependence on timber imported from Russia, Southeast Asia and African countries, including large amounts of illegally felled trees.
In tropical forest countries like Brazil and Indonesia, the deal will test a different kind of economic development. The United States and Europe grew wealthy in part by cutting down their forests generations ago. But now, with the world facing the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, they need to persuade developing countries to not follow in their footsteps — despite the powerful financial incentives.
“Can we develop without deforestation first?” asked Ana Toni, executive director of Brazil’s Institute of Climate and Society, a climate advocacy group. “This is the big challenge. That’s why we need to have an international effort.”