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Walking the Talk
COP27 Yields More Impressive Forest-Conservation Commitments; But Will Our Efforts Go Up in Smoke?

From COP27, we see more and more business initiatives focused on not only reaching sustainability, but averting a climate crisis and achieving nature positivity — but have climate-fueled forest fires already nullified our chances at an effective carbon market?

Global brands fuel transition to forest-friendly supply chains

Nanollose is leading the charge in forest-free textile alternatives with its tree-free rayon | Image credit: Nanollose

On Friday at COP27, leading companies including H&M, Inditex, Stella McCartney, Ben & Jerry’s, HH Global and Kering announced a collective commitment to purchase over a half-million tonnes of low-carbon, low-footprint alternative fibers for fashion textiles and paper packaging. The move aims to support the protection of the world’s vital forests and ecosystems and reduce forest degradation pressures from fashion and packaging supply chains.

Spearheaded by environmental nonprofit Canopy, this commitment towards more sustainable, lower-carbon textiles — what Canopy calls “next-generation solutions” — reflects a building urgency across industries to accelerate the transition to nature-positive business models. Demand from major brands is essential to attract the investment necessary to scale these game-changing, next-generation alternatives on ecologically meaningful timelines.

Last year at COP26, protecting nature was at the center of commitments to deliver on global climate targets. But according to Forest 500 research, one-third of the world’s most influential companies have yet to make forest conservation commitments — despite the scientific community’s warnings that at least 50 percent of the world’s forests need to be conserved or restored by 2030 to ensure global temperature rises stay below 1.5°C.

Every year, over 3.2 billion trees are cut down to produce fiber for packaging and clothing, releasing vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Alternatives to wood (the basis for popular textiles rayon and viscose) — such as agricultural residues and recycled textiles — are readily available and can be scaled in order to prevent the logging of these forests at this untenable rate. Moving to next-generation solutions could help avoid almost 1Gt of CO2 emissions between now and 2030.

“We are thrilled to advance this commitment with forward-looking partners who are willing to challenge the status quo and in doing so provide a breakthrough for these game-changing technologies,” said Canopy founder and Executive Director Nicole Rycroft. “This commitment will allow us to take a historic leap closer to the $64 billion of investments in sustainable alternatives needed to ensure forest conservation for our planet’s climate and biodiversity stability.”

Canopy has been leading the movement to shift to sustainable alternatives to virgin forest fiber in fashion and packaging supply chains for years. In 2020, its Pulp Thriller report asserted that removing 50 percent of the forest fiber from pulp manufacturing, and replacing it with next-generation alternative fibers would help us avert catastrophic climate change. The four fashion giants that have signed onto this latest commitment are already members of the CanopyStyle initiative — through which Canopy has rallied hundreds of fashion brands, retailers, designers and viscose producers to find alternatives for forest-fiber textiles, keeping ancient and endangered forests standing and out of our wardrobes. CanopyStyle now includes more than 500 brand partners, representing more than US$857 billion dollars of annual revenue.

On the packaging front, Canopy launched Pack4Good in October 2019 — and its partners now include 341 companies including fashion brands, personal care brands, printers and telecommunication companies, and solution providers; and more companies are signing on every day.

For the most part, commercial-scale, next-gen production facilities don’t yet exist (apart from the recent opening of Renewcell 1: the mill opened earlier this month by Renewcell — Swedish makers of the circular textile, Circulose (already seen in Levi’s recycled denim collection) — with which Canopy has been working to help scale). The new commitment will help unlock the investment needed to build 10-20 new low-footprint, next-generation pulp mills; provide farm communities and cities with new markets to replace the burning of straw residue and textile landfilling; and prevent an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of GHG emissions from going into the atmosphere, relative to the equivalent production of virgin forest fiber by 2025. These purchasing commitments aim to change that by sending a clear signal to investors that the market is ready to source these game-changing solutions as soon as they come online.

“Canopy has showed true leadership by bringing the fashion and regenerated cellulosic industries together with the purpose of reducing fashion’s dependency on forests,” said Madelene Ericsson, Environmental Sustainability Business Expert at H&M Group, which has had some missteps in its ongoing pursuit of sustainability and circularity. “Innovative, low-carbon solutions — such as regenerated cellulosic fibers from waste textiles, microbial cellulose or agricultural residues — will play a vital role to help us reduce our impact on climate and protect forests, so no ancient and endangered forests are put at risk to make fashion. These next-generation solutions and collaborations like Canopy’s help us taking strong steps towards our goal for all our materials to be either recycled or sourced in a more sustainable way by 2030.”

The signatories have also committed to ensuring their respective supply chains are free of ancient and endangered forests and are calling on industry peers to follow suit by shifting towards sustainable, next-generation alternatives.

“We’re proud to be working with Canopy to create a more sustainable sourcing strategy for our fiber-based packaging. Moving away from virgin fiber is part of our larger strategy to reduce the footprint of our operations,” said Ben & Jerry’s Global Sustainability Manager, Jenna Evans. “While it’s clear that rapidly ending the age of fossil fuels is required to avoid catastrophic climate change, companies still must do the hard work to ensure their packaging isn’t contributing to deforestation as well.”

When compared to forest fibers, Canopy estimates next-generation solutions have:

  • 95 percent to 130 percent less CO2 emissions

  • 18 percent to 70 percent less fossil energy resource depletion

  • 88 percent to 100 percent fewer land-use impacts

  • at least 5x lower impact on biodiversity/threatened species

Rise in forest fires threatens to tank global carbon markets

Image credit: Climate Connect Digital

Meanwhile, while the rise in forest-conservation commitments, tree-planting initiatives and nature-positivity goals are positive developments, it’s becoming apparent that they may already be undermined by the conditions we’ve created.

On Wednesday at COP27, climate-tech company Climate Connect Digital (CCD) released a white paper quantifying the permanence risk posed by increasingly intense forest fires around the world — but specifically, across the Indian subcontinent — which will likely have a significant impact on nature-based carbon projects and the voluntary carbon markets, which form the backbone of many government and corporate climate-action plans.

A main focus at COP 27 is on fulfilling Article 6 — the Paris Agreement’s rulebook governing carbon markets. The CCD white paper details how carbon stocks in forests are being impacted by rising temperatures and intensifying forest fires across the Indian subcontinental region — which illustrate the threat to the future health of both natural ecosystems and carbon markets. Current climate trends and future projections are alarming, as the average temperature trend for the last 40 years has seen a rise of 0.5°C, leading to markedly increased weather volatility.

Permanence is a key tenet of carbon offset programs. In order for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions to earn offset credits, have value in the carbon markets and have a legitimate and lasting positive impact on climate, the GHGs must be permanently reduced or sequestered. For high-quality offsets, permanence is defined as at least 100 years of GHG reduction or sequestration.

The CCD study tries to estimate the impact of climate change over different Indian regions by examining change in levels of pre-monsoon and monsoon rainfall, increase in temperature over different parts of India and their impact on forest fire patterns in the last 40 years. Based on its findings, it projects the frequency, duration, and intensity of forest fires — which release not only all of the carbon sequestered in the trees and soil but also carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter into the atmosphere — to be exacerbated.

This poses major risks for nature-based climate-solutions projects and carbon project developers. In turn, there will be a direct bearing on global carbon registries, which will have to manage the buffers required for mitigating the associated permanence risk.

Currently, around 20 percent of a project's carbon credits are set aside in a buffer by registries at the time of issuance, to mitigate the permanence risk. However, the study shows this level will likely be inadequate in the future and have a knock-on effect on global markets — and highlights the need for similar types of climate analysis to be conducted in other parts of the world.

To read more, download the full white paper here.