World leaders vow to stop deforestation by 2030. Can it be done?

At the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, a group of more than 100 countries, representing 85% of the world’s forests, committed to stopping all deforestation in just nine years. The declaration comes alongside $19 billion of new funding to tackle forest loss, provided by developed countries and companies.

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The commitment, known as the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, was signed by 101 countries plus the European Union. Forest experts welcomed the announcement (especially the new funding part) but said it’s not enough, and countries are merely delaying action. To dampen optimism even more, this isn’t the first time something like this has been signed.

The 2030 goal is actually similar to another declaration done by a smaller group of countries seven years ago, the New York Declaration of Forests. They also had an interim goal of halving deforestation by 2020 and we’re not even close. The difference now is that the list is longer, and includes the likes of Brazil, which has seen high rates of deforestation. But the fact that countries pledged to do something they’d already agreed to in the past does not bode well.

British prime minister Boris Johnson said humanity will now have a chance to end its “long history as nature’s conqueror and instead become its custodian,” calling it an unprecedented agreement. Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden highlighted the scheme and said his government will present a plan to restore 200 million hectares.

Despite optimism, there’s little detail in the declaration on how the goal will actually be met or how progress will be monitored. Plus, the goal is not binding — so there’s good reason not to get your hopes up just yet. Still, if governments deliver, it could be a big deal. 

“While the Glasgow Declaration has an impressive range of signatories from across forest-rich countries, large consumer markets and financial centres, it nevertheless risks being a reiteration of previous failed commitments if it lacks teeth,” said Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness, in a statement. 

Forests and climate change

Forests are a key ally to prevent climate change as they remove emissions out of the atmosphere and prevent them from warming the planet. Still, this climate buffering is quickly disappearing. More than 250,000 square kilometers (99,600 square miles) of forest were lost in 2020, an area larger than the UK, according to Global Forest Watch. The only tropical country that has truly managed to stop and reverse deforestation is Costa Rica, and it managed to do so thanks to a program that put an economic value on standing forests and biodiversity and basically paid people to protect forests. There’s no such system set in place for the new pledge.

Stopping forest loss and degradation and promoting their restoration could contribute to over one-third of the total emissions reduction needed to fulfill the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Forests are also very important for people’s livelihoods and provide billions every year in goods and services such as clean water.

Nevertheless, trees are still cut down on an industrial scale, such as in the Amazon under the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s emissions rose 9.5% in 2020 largely due to the increasing deforestation. The Amazon lost 10,476 squared kilometers between August 2020 and July 2021, according to a recent report, putting indigenous populations at risk.

“Indigenous peoples are calling for 80 percent of the Amazon to be protected by 2025, and they’re right, that’s what’s needed,” Greenpeace Brazil Executive Director Carolina Pasquali said in a statement, adding the new initiative is essentially allowing another decade of deforestation. “The climate and the natural world can’t afford this deal.”

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