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Walking the Talk
COP 2030 Deforestation Commitment:
More Hot Air or Game-Changer for our Planet?

One of the most noteworthy pledges to come out of COP26 so far sees over 100 governments, responsible for 86 percent of the world’s forests, committing to end deforestation by 2030. Now, we must immediately take this lofty vision and make it a reality.

COP26 has kicked off in Glasgow with the expected flurry of eco-commitments and pledges. One of the announcements that has caught many people’s attention is the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use — a commitment by more than 100 governments, responsible for 86 percent of the world’s forests, to end deforestation by 2030. They’ve thrown in $19 billion to get it rolling. With the world’s forests and climate on the chopping block, is this announcement a gamechanger for our planet?

Given that forest conservation represents 30 percent of the climate solution, it is a relief — after years of nature-based solutions being relegated to the hinterlands of climate policy — to have forest conservation back on centre stage as a priority climate strategy. The Declaration is noteworthy in numerous respects:

  • The Declaration puts forest conservation at the centre of climate efforts — and having it launched on the second day of COP during the world leaders’ presentations lends it extra heft;

  • Not only are countries that house the world’s largest tracts of intact forests signatories to the Declaration, the world’s largest forest customer markets are also on board — and both are on the hook with distinct roles to play;

  • 86 percent of the world’s forests are covered under this announcement — including deforestation and forest-degradation bad actors Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia and Russia. Getting all of these countries on board is no small feat in itself.

  • It’s encouraging to see US$19.2 billion in funding to support national and local governments and Indigenous governments’ ability to participate in planning and transition to conservation-based economies

  • The Declaration acknowledges the role that Indigenous communities play in conservation and forest stewardship, and the importance of having them resourced to participate more centrally in not only preventing deforestation and unsustainable logging but in advancing resilient conservation.

But 2030 is a long way off; and it is easy to be sceptical of these “get the glory now, do the work later” announcements. After all, it only takes a moment for an old-growth tree to fall — and there are a lot of moments between now and 2030. Some might even say that cynicism is justified given previous promises and disappointments with similar — and ultimately unsuccessful — initiatives such as the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests. And although it is fantastic to see $19 billion committed to support indigenous and tropical governments (bravo to those responsible for that), since the Paris COP, an estimated $157 billion has been invested in agribusiness firms linked to tropical deforestation.

But rather than holding us back, these earlier, unsuccessful efforts provide valuable lessons for this initiative. Learning from the NY Declaration on Forests, it will be important to ensure that the Glasgow Declaration’s action plan:

  1. Ensures this commitment includes a halt to degradation of primary forests in addition to stopping deforestation. Countries such as Canada hide behind technical definitions of “deforestation” to avoid having to reform their own unsustainable forest industry, which still largely logs in carbon-rich, old-growth forests. Forest degradation is just as important in terms of carbon emissions. It’s time to level the playing field between tropical countries and those with temperate and boreal forests.

  2. Sets ambitious, binding, interim milestones for 2024, 2026 & 2028 on both "consumer" and "producer" countries. There’s a reason that Stalin set five-year plans — anything longer than that and it loses the urgency of proximity. Simply put, 2030 is too far away. We need to significantly reduce the climate load unleashed by logging forests within the next 3-5 years. Without clear targets and short timelines, we’ll likely get to 2029 and realize we haven’t done enough, early enough to hit the target.

  3. Establishes strong, binding national legislation that makes producing, sourcing and financing deforestation and forest degradation illegal. Integrating this into trade agreements and national development plans will be key to institutionalizing the goal and the necessary changes to national economies.

  4. Prioritizes significantly more public and private funds for the transition to:

    1. Support Indigenous communities’ active participation in governance over their traditional territories and in development of conservation-based economies;

    2. Support national and regional governments with significant primary forest cover to build robust conservation-based economies.

  5. Prioritizes investment, tax incentives and enabling regulatory conditions to accelerate the transition of currently forest-dependent supply chains — such as pulp, paper, packaging, textiles and agri-businesses — to low-carbon, next-gen solutions. Using low-carbon feedstocks such as agricultural residues, waste textiles and food waste for pulp and leather products and systematizing circular-economy production models addresses economic development and conservation of forests concurrently.

Continued degradation and deforestation of primary forests is akin to the continued development of coal and other fossil fuels: a climate disaster. So, bravo to all involved in negotiating this agreement! The past 18 months have shown that we can make previously unimaginable changes happen overnight and mobilize incredible resources for change and recovery ($25 trillion and counting in COVID-19 stimulus to date). Collective action not only provides hope, it’s the key to keeping us to below 1.5 degrees. Now, to take this lofty vision and make it a reality.