What makes a zero-deforestation commitment effective?

Guest blog by Samuel Levy

Cattle ranching is a major driver of tropical forest clearance in South America, photo: Pixabay

More and more companies are committing to stop deforestation-implicated products, such as soy, palm oil and beef, from entering their supply chains. They are doing so because these commodities are the greatest threat tropical forests face today. As zero-deforestation commitments have spread and grown they have become a key component in the global fight to conserve the world’s most biodiverse regions. But despite being widespread, each commitment is unique — with nearly every company including their own criteria, scope and mechanisms for implementation, all of which can affect conservation outcomes.

What makes a commitment effective?

The question of what makes for a good commitment is increasingly important to both evaluating whether or not companies are meeting their goals and to help those companies who want to make their own commitment ensure that it is going to be effective.

To answer this question, our team, led by Professor Rachael Garrett at Boston University, wanted to find out not just what characteristics make a commitment likely to preventing goods produced on deforested lands from entering supply chains, but also to identify which characteristics were likely to lead to meaningful reductions in deforestation, not just in the company’s sourcing areas but also across the globe.

Making commitments watertight

To make a difference, corporate commitments must set rigorous and clear definitions of what types of vegetation their suppliers can and cannot clear. Using an established, meaningful definition for protected vegetation types, such as High Conservation Value or High Carbon Stock and by not allowing deforested land to be compensated with additional forest planting (known as zero-net deforestation), commitments maximise the amount of forest they can protect.

Actually making a watertight commitment work requires implementation mechanisms — something which some commitments lack entirely. It seems obvious, but without a way of monitoring and verifying the conditions under which commodities are produced there is simply no way of telling whether or not producers have stopped deforesting or not.

This then needs to be combined with a compliance system — a way of monitoring deforestation to verify that farmers have not cleared forest on their property and that also prevents those who have deforested from selling their goods to a company with a commitment.

Deforestation leakage and spillovers

Yet, even if a company successfully stops buying deforestation-linked commodities, this may not necessarily reduce deforestation globally, depending on who, where, when and what is covered by a commitment.

Who matters because if companies only take responsibility for deforestation on properties selling directly to them, then anyone who may have been involved in production before the final sale can continue to deforest.

When matters because if a commitment doesn’t ban the clearing of forest from the date at which the commitment is signed, then producers can increase deforestation up until that date.

Where matters because if only a specific region is targeted, then deforestation-centred activities can move from one region to another. Where also matters because if a commitment only targets a place where deforestation isn’t a major issue, then the commitment is unlikely to alter practices or reduce deforestation globally.

What matters because if a zero-deforestation commitment only applies to one or a few commodities, producers who want to deforest their land might be able to change the product they produce, without changing the rate of deforestation.

Context counts

We also identified a number of factors that are out of companies’ control, but still make a big difference to the impact a commitment makes. These are the market share committed companies collectively represent, the availability of reliable near-real time forest monitoring and the importance of government regulations.

Near-real time forest monitoring, at the same scale as deforestation and linkable to farm location and area, allows for companies to identify those who are deforesting land and exclude them from their supply chain. A high market share of committed companies in a region reduces opportunities for deforestation-reliant producers to avoid commitments and sell to non-committed buyers.

Government regulations are important as if the gap between what a commitment requires and what regulations require is very large, then farmers will face very high costs if they want to comply with the commitment, possibly leading to farmers avoiding committed supply chains.

Our research points to a lot of ways companies can optimise the design of their commitments. But it also shows that it is important that companies work with governments to improve monitoring capacity, regulatory frameworks, and enforcement as part of a joint effort to decouple deforestation from agricultural production and economic development.

In the global marketplaces that commodities like palm oil, soy and beef are traded, successfully ending commodity-driven deforestation is not simple, but with forward thinking businesses that create commitments that follow the steps outlined here it is possible.

This blog draws on a recent paper on Criteria for effective zero-deforestation commitments, in the academic journal Global Environmental Change by Professor Rachael Garrett, Samuel Levy and other colleagues from academia and civil society.