Deforestation rates sound alarm bells for the climate

Helen Burley

Protesters in London demand government action on climate change, photo: Martin Hearn via flickr.com, creative commons licence

As people around the world take to the streets to demand action on climate change, new figures show that despite government and business promises to address deforestation — and its contribution to climate change, an area of primary tropical forest the size of Belgium was cleared in 2018, largely to make way for agricultural commodities.

Tropical forests store vast quantities of carbon dioxide, with primary forests particular important carbon stores. Tropical forests also provide important, often unique habitat for biodiversity and support the livelihoods of millions of people.

Yet global demand for agricultural commodities including palm oil, beef, cocoa and soy is driving this forest loss. And as Global Canopy’s latest Forest 500 annual assessment shows, the companies involved in these supply chains are still not doing enough to stop the destruction of these vital assets.

Brazil lost greatest amount of forest in 2018

The figures, which are produced by the University of Maryland and released on Global Forest Watch, show the highest levels of tropical forest loss are in Brazil, which lost 1,347,132 hectares of forest in 2018.

Deforestation rates in Brazil fell between 2007 and 2015, but have increased since, with the data showing a spike in deforestation rates in the Amazon, much of which, WRI say, can be attributed to clear cutting.

And there are fears that this trend is likely to continue, with the current Brazilian government eager to remove protection for indigenous reserves in the Amazon and encourage development in protected areas.

The spread of palm oil

There is better news for Indonesia where deforestation rates are now falling, following a forest moratorium introduced by the Indonesian President Joko Widodo in 2017 in response to global concern about peatland forests being cleared to make way for palm oil.

But recent elections in Indonesia have raised concerns about future forests policy, with both of the presidential candidates pledging to increase production of palm oil.

And global demand for palm oil is still increasing, with palm oil plantations spreading across parts of Latin America and Africa — contributing to forest loss in Colombia and Liberia — which both appear in the top ten of countries with the highest levels of forest loss.

Top ten countries courtesy of World Resources Insitute

Cocoa gives cause for concern

The greatest increase in tropical forest loss in 2018 was found in Ghana, which saw a 60% increase in deforestation rates compared to 2017, due to a combination of illegal mining activities and the expansion of cocoa farms.

Big name chocolate brands have made high profile pledges to ensure the cocoa they source is sustainable, with many working with the World Cocoa Foundation to ensure that our global appetite for chocolate does not add to the problem. But much work still remains to be done.

Opportunities for action

Many of the companies in these commodity supply chains have made commitments to remove deforestation from their supply chains — and the Forest 500 2018 assessment finds that some are making progress on implementation.

High scoring companies such as Nestle, Unilever and Mars have introduced deforestation commitments across different supply chains, and are monitoring and reporting on the progress they make.

But far too many big players in these agricultural commodity supply chains have not done enough to recognise their exposure to deforestation — and so continue to buy and sell good that may have been produced at the expense of our forests.

Far more can be done by these companies to address the problem — and company action is essential especially where governments are questioning their climate commitments.

But as the latest deforestation rates make clear, companies are not doing enough to solve this problem. Governments in consumer countries could make a real difference by requiring companies to take responsibility for their supply chains. France has blazed a trail with the introduction of the Loi de Vigilance in 2017, requiring companies to carry out due diligence on product sourcing.

Such legislation is needed to protect tropical forests and to ensure companies and consumer countries play their part in addressing deforestation’s role in climate change.