Not enough is being done

Helen Bellfield

Haze from burning as forests cleared in Indonesia, photo: CIFOR via flickr.com, creative commons licence

We are not on track to meet the goal to halve natural forest loss by 2020. This is the headline finding from this year’s assessment of progress on the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF). For those monitoring the expansion of agriculture in the tropical forest countries, this is no surprise — trees are still being cleared to make way for cattle, soy and palm oil. And despite many companies making commitments, others are still doing nothing — and some of those with commitments are not doing enough.

Global Canopy is a contributing partner to the NYDF assessment, our Forest 500 data is used to assess Goal 2 of the New York Declaration. Goal 2’s ambition is to “Support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper, and beef products by no later than 2020”.

Our assessment of Forest 500 companies in 2017 showed that the most powerful companies in supply chains linked to deforestation were not on track to meet this goal.

Worryingly, the NYDF assessment finds that the pace of new company commitments has slowed markedly from a 77 percent increase in 2014 to less than 2 percent in 2018.

And as Forest 500 data showed, companies involved in sourcing palm oil and timber are more likely to have adopted deforestation commitments than companies trading cattle and soy.

Share of global production of palm oil, soy, cattle products, and paper and pulp under a commitment in 2017, in percent, from http://forestdeclaration.org/goal/goal-2/

Why this matters

As the assessment makes clear, commercial agriculture is the largest driver of forest loss. In South America, it is the industrial scale expansion of cattle and soy farming that is resulting in forests being cleared.

Brazil tops the league table for forest loss, with just under 7 million hectares of forest lost in 2017. Indonesia lost 400,000 hectares in 2017, despite the commitments from palm oil and timber companies operating there.

The need to address deforestation has never been clearer. The loss of around 10 billion trees every year and the subsequent changes to land use has severe consequences for our climate, for water supplies, for wildlife — and for the natural resources on which we depend.

Trees should be a defence against climate change — they absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, locking these emissions away from our atmosphere. But studies have shown that deforestation and forest degradation mean that tropical forests are now a source of emissions, adding them back into our atmosphere. Some studies suggest that deforestation and land use change could be responsible for as much as 20% of climate warming.

What needs to be done

The need for action is clear — particularly from those companies that have not yet adopted commitments for soy or cattle, including well-known brands such as Hershey Co, Dunkin Brands Group and PepsiCo.

Many of the companies without commitments are based in China and India, where growing market demand is fuelling expansion. The Trase Yearbook 2018 shows the significance of the Chinese market for Brazilian soy — driving expansion in the Cerrado, an important forest and savannah biome. China is also an important market for Indonesian palm oil.

But change is also happening in these markets — with recent launches of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s Chinese Sustainable Palm Oil Alliance, and the Chinese Sustainable Meat Declaration.

Companies operating in these markets need to go beyond signing up to these commitments and ensure their commitments are implemented. A lack of data makes it difficult to assess progress on the ground — but Global Canopy’s Company Action on Deforestation assessment shows that in the cattle and soy sectors, even companies’ own assessments of progress show that not enough is being done.

The financial institutions that provide loans and investment to these sectors must also play their part in helping protect our forests, not only by ensuring they are not financing deforestation, but by incentivising sustainable production. Santander’s new loan targeting sustainable production in the Cerrado is a step in the right direction.

And governments must also act. The Assessment finds that support from financial institutions and governments is limited. Governments play a clear role in land-use planning and forest protection, but they can also incentivise sustainable production — and must enforce protection where it is in place.

Future forests

The New York Declaration on Forests brought together over 190 national and subnational governments, multinational companies, groups representing indigenous communities, and non-governmental organisations. It represents a commitment to action, but one that is failing so far.

The clock is ticking. While imminent deadlines will not be met, the need to act to implement these commitments is urgent — and requires action on all fronts.