COP26 flagship deforestation deal hailed but questioned

A global commitment to halt the destruction of the world’s great forests, signed by more than 100 world leaders on Tuesday, was the first big deal of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

But almost immediately, critics voiced doubts as to how the plan would be enforced, and whether it would prove more effective than previous commitments to end deforestation — a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Signing the declaration is the easy part,” said António Guterres, secretary-general of the UN, which convened the COP26 gathering. “It’s essential that it’s implemented now, for people and the planet.”

Under the Glasgow deal, countries that are home to more than 85 per cent of the world’s forests have agreed to halt and even reverse forest loss by the end of the decade. This was bolstered by pledges from 30 financial institutions to eliminate their exposure to agricultural commodity-linked woodland destruction by 2025.

But the signatories, which include Brazil, Russia, Canada and Indonesia as well as the US, UK and other western nations, did not detail how the implementation of the agreement would be tracked, or what might happen if nations reneged on the promise.

“We were expecting more detail and it’s disappointing we don’t have that,” said Jo Blackman, head of forests policy and advocacy at Global Witness, a human rights organisation. “We’ve seen previous declarations to halt and halve deforestation from governments that haven’t been met.”

Voluntary deforestation pledges had been made before that failed to deliver on their promises. Under the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, 40 governments, as well as companies and other bodies, said they would halve the rate of forest loss globally by 2020, and end deforestation by 2030. But an official report this year concluded that “tropical primary forest loss has generally increased” in the seven years since the deal was signed.

Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group, said: “Given the way countries are failing to live up to even their weak pledges under the Paris agreement [signed at COP21 in 2015], it will be interesting to see if policymakers come up with approaches that have more teeth when it comes to something so specific and measurable as land conversion.”

Nonetheless, climate experts broadly welcomed the deforestation commitment, as well as the $12bn in overseas development financing promised by 12 countries for forest protection, saying it marked a step change in attitudes.

There was now a “real dialogue and a real commitment to be working together”, said Justin Adams, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance. “Those conversations have not happened before, in terms of how we can make this all happen.”

Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of Mighty Earth, an anti-deforestation campaign group, said it could trigger change if it was “backed by real monitoring, enforcement and transparency”. He suggested governments could create a global deforestation observatory under the UN to track forest loss.

Russia’s enormous forest reserves, which account for about a fifth of the world’s total, are the cornerstone of its recently announced plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

President Vladimir Putin said in his COP26 address on Tuesday that Moscow was “taking the most serious and energetic measure” to preserve its forests. But the country’s forest stock has been blighted by an increasing numbers of fires in Siberia, which experts attribute to climate change and poor management.

Logging in the African nation of Gabon, which has ambitious plans to reposition itself as a ‘green superpower’ © Christophe Van Der Perre/Reuters

Much of the scepticism over the deforestation pledge was centred on Brazil, home to the biggest section of the Amazon rainforest, which has experienced a sharp rise in deforestation under President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has often expressed sympathy with the Amazon’s extractive industries, notably its gold miners — rhetoric that is taken as a green light for them to continue without fear of prosecution.

“Illegal groups feel emboldened. They’re thinking they have to take advantage of this moment,” said an officer from Brazil’s main environmental enforcement group, Ibama.

Illegal wood from Brazil is sold to buyers, including some in Europe, with little concern for traceability, while soyabeans produced on illegally deforested lands are sold to China. Big banks have continued to fund major agribusiness companies linked to deforestation.

“What we need is governments to send a strong message that they’ll hold corporate actors to account for their role in deforestation,” said Blackman. Without that, any pledge “risks being ineffective”. 

Acknowledging the problem, 28 governments including the US, EU, Brazil and Colombia also said on Tuesday that they would develop a plan for sustainable trading, aimed at eliminating deforested wood from commodity supply chains.

Over the next year, signatories will discuss what a common standard might look like and examine issues such as how to monitor supply chain transparency, and the use of trade to provide incentives for good forest management.

One problem with a blanket ban on deforestation is that clearing forests to grow crops is how a large numbers of people in developing countries survive. Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, told Tuesday’s audience that “millions of Indonesians depend [for] their livelihood on the forestry sector”.

Any new standards “must be accompanied by market incentives” and not “unilaterally imposed” by rich countries, he added.

One country that could provide a model for forest management is Gabon, which has ambitious plans to reposition itself as a “green superpower” by promoting eco-tourism and issuing bonds to preserve its rainforest.

“If we want our forests to survive they must be valuable,” its president Ali Bongo told the audience in Glasgow. “The developed world has plundered our forests . . . We plan to save the forest by exporting it sustainably.”

Additional reporting by Bryan Harris and Max Seddon

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