Don’t forget about tropical forests at COP24

Josh Ettinger

Photo: Josh Ettinger

As thousands of representatives from governments, NGOs, and business descend on Poland for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP24, they will have a lot on their plates. Many are now aware that ending deforestation is vital toward achieving the Paris Agreement, but tropical forests are still at risk of being sidelined among other priorities.

Deforestation and GHG emissions

Tropical deforestation currently accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like all that much, but consider this — if tropical deforestation was a country, it would have the third highest annual emissions in the world.

If tropical deforestation was a country, it would have the third highest annual emissions in the world.

The Paris Agreement is designed to allow countries to set their own mitigation targets (known as Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs). At first thought, it might seem that tropical forest conservation is only relevant for countries that contain these ecosystems within their national borders.

Yet if we consider the underlying drivers of tropical deforestation, our understanding completely transforms.

Commercial large scale agriculture for crops like palm oil and soy drives two thirds of tropical deforestation, and these commodities are exported globally as key ingredients in goods we consume every day, such as chocolate, shampoo and cosmetics. They are also used as feed for livestock around the world. Increasing demand for cheap agricultural commodities in our products is behind the loss of forests. Fighting deforestation therefore requires action by the large consumer markets (including Europe, China and the United States), in addition to changes where commodities are produced.

Why tropical forests are vital for climate mitigation

By stopping tropical forest degradation and deforestation, we can avoid substantial GHG emissions. By allowing these ecosystems to thrive, they absorb more carbon. Conserving and restoring tropical forests could reduce global net emissions by up to 30%.

What can countries do to support tropical forest conservation?

Whether or not countries are responsible for tropical forest management within their national borders, all countries that import goods linked to deforestation can play a pivotal role in supporting transitions to sustainability. For example, in November 2018 France adopted a National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation, which will engage producers, businesses, investors and consumers on ending deforestation in France’s supply chains by 2030.

France is one of seven European countries party to the 2015 Amsterdam Declarations, in which members agreed to take steps to end deforestation associated with their imported agricultural commodities. Civil society can put pressure on these governments to adopt ambitious actions combating deforestation in their imports. We do not need an outright ban on commodities like palm oil, but we need to ensure production is done sustainably. At the other end of the supply chain, consumers must demand that businesses only purchase sustainably produced commodities.

Other reasons to protect tropical forests

Tropical forest conservation offers many other crucial benefits beyond mitigation. It can contribute to a variety of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially through the conservation of biodiversity and provisioning of ecosystem services, such as clean water, to local communities (such as in the Peruvian Cumbaza watershed).

Tropical forests also play vital roles in regulating climate and rainfall patterns, and hold significant cultural importance for diverse groups of people around the world. Beyond what they do for us, these awe-inspiring natural landscapes are worth saving before they disappear forever.

We will not end deforestation until we all become part of the solution

We have much to gain by protecting and restoring tropical forests, and much to lose if we don’t. There is some recognition that forests need to be one of the key priority topics for COP24, and there are numerous side events related to forests, giving cause for cautious optimism.

Hopefully, increased dialogue will lead to increased ambition from tropical forest countries to reduce emissions from land use, with similarly ambitious commitments from donor countries to support these efforts.

In the wake of the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees report (which specifies that we have 12 years to avoid climate catastrophe), we can no longer neglect tropical forest conservation as a key component of climate change mitigation. Policy measures will be most effective if they facilitate sustainability across all dimensions of agricultural commodity supply chains, from forests to ships, to businesses and our shopping bags.

To learn more about the linkages between opaque supply chains and tropical deforestation, join us at 3pm on Wednesday, December 5th at COP for our event ‘How transparency can drive action on climate change commitments’, hosted jointly with the National Wildlife Federation.

Josh Ettinger is the Claudia Comberti Communications Intern at Global Canopy.