Are zero-deforestation pledges slowing deforestation? Without more transparency, we just don’t know

This guest blog was kindly contributed by Charlotte Streck. Charlotte is co-founder and director of Climate Focus. She serves as an advisor to numerous governments and non-profit organizations, private companies, and foundations on legal aspects of climate policy, international negotiations, policy development and implementation. She is also a renowned international expert on climate change mitigation and adaptation in the agricultural and forestry sectors.

The Baliem valley in West Papua.

By the end of 2016, more than 400 companies had committed to reduce or eliminate the deforestation embedded in their products. These pledges are an important first step, but the real challenge comes with translating them into action.

The conventional wisdom has been that if consumer-facing companies pledge to ban deforestation from their supply chains, this ambition will somehow trickle down, leading to a shift towards sustainable practices at the frontier of tropical forests. A review of the status of deforestation-related efforts tells a different story.

The broken link between company commitments and reduced deforestation

Last year Climate Focus led an Assessment of progress towards eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities — Goal 2 of the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests. Cooperating with more than a dozen environmental think tanks, we evaluated the deforestation-related commitments of companies by analyzing data from Supply-Change.org, Forest 500, CDP, and The Sustainability Consortium. The results are sobering: While there is a clear increase in pledges and commitments, few companies have clear time-bound action plans on how to achieve these commitments. Even less have geo-spatial systems to monitor forest impacts of their operations.

One of the major challenges — both for companies and for others who want to hold them accountable — is the difficulty of tracing commodities back to the farm where they originated, particularly in soy and palm oil: If you don’t know who is producing your commodities, how can you work with them on sustainable production, or monitor progress? Our research made it painfully clear that the understanding of the extent and nature of the connections between supply chain pledges and reduced deforestation remains deeply unsatisfactory. In short, we don’t know whether current pledges have led — or will lead — to the desired reduction of deforestation. We also cannot confirm that the proxy indicators used to assess progress towards Goal 2 (percent of companies making commitments, adoption of company policies, assessing compliance) will indeed be correlated with improved conservation outcomes and reduced carbon emissions.

A role for big data

Considering the stakes, it is essential that the environmental research community develop new ways to establish a link between commitments and action, action and impact. We can’t afford to waste our energy pushing for change that doesn’t halt the loss of tropical forests. And we will only know what works when we can see the whole supply chain.

This is where transparency tools like Trase come into play. Trase lets companies — and everyone else — see the impacts of their actions, and whether they help to reduce deforestation. It is the first application that links — at the scale of entire regions or countries — downstream supply-chain actors such as traders to the municipalities of production and their deforestation track records. It can tell us where Cargill or Bunge source their soy and how much of it goes from a specific municipality to China, Germany, or Spain. Overlaid with deforestation maps provided by initiatives such as Global Forest Watch and the new Global Forest Watch-Commodities, it becomes possible to analyze links between deforestation and specific regions or producer companies, greatly enhancing transparency around agricultural commodity supply chains.

Efforts by Trase, Global Forest Watch and other emerging initiatives offer the potential for retailers and manufacturers to more easily monitor how well their suppliers are complying with their own procurement standards. They allow the NGO community to link deforestation in municipalities to specific actors (including companies), allow governments to assess compliance with legal requirements, and help reveal cases where shifting sourcing patterns simply displace — instead of reduce– deforestation.

Ways forward

More needs to be done to push more companies to make commitments and to hold actors that drive deforestation accountable for their actions. Shedding light on causality of action and impact marks a major advance, allowing the 190 signatories of the NYDF to take collaborative approaches towards meeting Goal 2 of the Declaration.

Moving forward, the work of organizations such as the NYDF Assessment Partners and initiatives like Trase will facilitate better targeted action and impact measurements. New tools and data will help in engaging actors along the value chain — from producer to retailer — and assist companies in better allocating resources.

However, even with the ability to adopt specific, concrete policies and systems, companies will continue to be faced with other challenges to implementation — such as enforcement — limiting impact and requiring external backing. Governments and financial institutions have an important role to play in this, ensuring there is an enabling, conducive environment and the necessary support for implementing sustainability measures at scale. Research groups and initiatives can empower actors across sectors to hold themselves and others accountable by working together to fill data gaps (and avoid overlaps) and by making findings and knowledge available to the public.

Ultimately, it is not just the responsibility of companies, but of all actors, to drive home the global transition to deforestation-free supply chains.

This blog is one of a set based on a panel hosted by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Global Canopy Programme at the Global Landscapes Forum in Marrakesh during UNFCCC COP 22. The panel discussion focused on the risks, challenges, and opportunities involved in monitoring progress towards more sustainable commodity supply chains. Links to complementary blogs from the same discussion forum by Rod Taylor of the World Resources Institute and Frances Seymour of the Center for Global Development can be found here.