Report card: World slows deforestation, but at a pace short of 2030 goal

By some estimates, deforestation accounts for roughly 10 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions from human activities.

Nacho Doce/Reuters
A horse stands by a lake in Rio Pardo next to Bom Futuro National Forest, in the district of Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, Sept. 1, 2015. The town of Rio Pardo, a settlement of about 4,000 people in the Amazon rainforest, rises where only jungle stood less than a quarter of a century ago. Brazil's government has stated a goal of eliminating illegal deforestation, but enforcing the law in remote corners like Rio Pardo is far from easy.

The world is making progress in slowing the pace of deforestation. But efforts and pledges to date fall short of what's needed to meet an international goal to halt deforestation by 2030.

That's the main conclusion from the first in a series of annual report cards on the New York Declaration on Forests, released Wednesday. The declaration is one outcome of a climate summit held at the United Nations in New York in September 2014.

Ending deforestation is widely seen as important for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions – mainly carbon dioxide – that are driving global warming. By some estimates, deforestation accounts for roughly 10 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions from human activities. Under the declaration, signatories aim to cut annual losses to existing forests in half by 2020 and halt the losses by 2030.

The report card tracks pledges and performance among more than 180 governments, companies, and other groups that have signed the declaration, whose goals also take into account efforts well under way before the document appeared.

Even so, the declaration has spurred additional activity, notes Charlotte Streck, co-founder and director of Climate Focus, an international consulting group in Amsterdam that produced the report.

“We see a lot of programs being announced. That is positive,” she says. But “we are not on track to end the loss of natural forests.”

The deforestation picture improves somewhat when restoration efforts or the natural return of forests to once-cleared land are included. These will be needed to achieve the overall reduction in carbon dioxide emissions the declaration's authors say it potentially could deliver – some 4.5 billion to 8.8 billion tons a year.

But reforestation won't compensate for the ecological disruption that comes from when humans clear natural forests, Ms. Streck adds.

The declaration represents what its architects term an unprecedented collaboration among a spectrum of stakeholders. Initially, 150 organizations endorsed the declaration. The coalition of the willing now exceeds 180 participants, including the United States and 35 other national governments; 20 local, state, or provincial governments; and more than a dozen indigenous-rights groups. In addition, more than 50 corporations, including Walmart, McDonald's, General Mills, Deutsche Bank, Cargill, and Nestle have pledged to use their investments or leverage with suppliers to reduce tropical deforestation.

The report card identifies encouraging developments beyond the number of groups signing the declaration during the past year. Among them:

  • The UN adopted a goal of stopping deforestation by 2020 as one of its Sustainable Development Goals.
  • In advance of global climate talks in Paris at the end of this month, countries have included reforestation projects among the actions they pledge to take to combat global warming. The New York Declaration sets a forest-restoration goal of 150 million hectares (371 million acres) by 2020 and at least 350 million hectares by 2030. In 2011, countries pledged to reforest nearly 63 million hectares by 2020. Pledges under a new global climate treaty, if fulfilled, would contribute another 122 million hectares toward the declaration's goals. However, that leaves a gap of some 165 million hectares between now and 2030 that still must be closed to meet the declaration's target for 2030.
  • The number of companies stepping forward to reduce deforestation from agriculture products they buy has increased from a handful before 2009 to around 300 today, although only about 7 percent of the companies that exert the most influence on agricultural supply chains are taking part, according to the Global Canopy Program's “Forest 500.

The report card also notes progress with pilot projects that pay developing countries to conserve or restore their forests as greenhouse-gas control efforts, although countries that pledged money toward the effort have delivered on only about one-third of the amount pledged. The approach is known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+. Climate-pact negotiators are working out its provisions in hopes that it can be included in any final agreement reached in Paris.

In addition, legal recognition that indigenous people and local communities have land rights in the areas that would be affected by REDD+ has expanded, although the pace has slowed in recent years and violence over land rights, especially when illegal logging is involved, continues apace.

On one level, expecting too much change in the year since participants signed the New York Declaration on Forests is unreasonable, suggests Stephan Schwartzman, senior director for tropical-forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. The Fund is one of five groups that collaborated on the report-card project.

“Whether you're talking about consumer-goods companies or major governments, they are large organizations, and it's hard to turn them,” he says.

At the same time, progress can come faster than expected. For example, Brazil has experienced a sharp drop in deforestation rates since around 2004, despite an initial sense among many national and state policymakers that the effort would be too hard and too expensive. Over the last year, the rate of deforestation has increased. Still, the effort points to the speed at which improvements can occur, Dr. Schwartzman suggests. 

Perhaps the biggest contribution the report-card makes is establishing a baseline for successive updates, adds Climate Focus's Streck.

The work “will make it a lot easier in the years to come. We now know what data are there and what is missing, where the curves have to bend and where they've bent already” in favorable directions, she says.

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