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Deforestation targets, commitments already in jeopardy?

02 May 2022 Keiron Greenhalgh

Commitments by global leaders to halt and reverse deforestation at COP26 are in danger of flopping just over six months after being made, according to newly released data, as the tide has yet to turn on tree cover erosion, and initiatives face growing difficulties in the tropics.

To meet the ambition of the 141 countries that committed to reversing deforestation through the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use, forest loss must decline every year through 2030, which isn't happening, the data show.

Some 3.75 million hectares of tropical primary rainforest—critical for carbon storage and biodiversity—was lost in 2021, equivalent to 10 football pitches a minute, according to data released by the Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative. Forest ecosystems are the largest terrestrial carbon sink, absorbing roughly 2 billion metric tons (mt) of CO2-equivalent a year.

Tropical primary forest loss in 2021 resulted in 2.5 gigatons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the annual fossil fuel emissions of India, said World Resources Institute (WRI) researchers affiliated with GFW. The tropics lost an overall 11.1 million hectares of tree cover in 2021, according to the data, which was collected by the University of Maryland.

About 3 million-4 million hectares a year of primary tropical forest has been lost over the past 20 years, WRI Distinguished Senior Fellow Frances Seymour told FP Virtual Climate Summit attendees 28 April, the same day the data was released. The largest amount of deforestation in 2021 took place in Brazil, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Bolivia rounding out the top three countries for loss of trees, Seymour said.

"Running away from us"

"We have not begun to halt, let alone reverse deforestation," UN Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen said 28 April during a separate session at the Foreign Policy magazine event. "At this rate, deforestation is still running away from us."

As custodian of the globe's largest land mass covered by rainforest, Brazil consistently tops the table for most primary forest loss. Over 40% of tropical primary forest loss in 2021 occurred in Brazil, a total of 1.5 million hectares, the data show.

Non-fire losses, which in Brazil the researchers said are most often associated with agricultural expansion, increased 9% in 2021 compared with 2020 to 1.19 million hectares, the data show. The western Brazilian Amazon reckoned with heightened primary forest loss, as key states saw increases in non-fire loss in excess of 25% between 2020 and 2021.

Primary forest loss in Brazil is especially concerning, the researchers said, given evidence that the Amazon is losing resilience and may be closer to a tipping point than previously believed, where deforestation, climate change, and fire interactions lead to an "irreversible transformation" of huge areas of the Amazon to a savannah. This would not only result in huge amounts of biodiversity loss and carbon emissions, but also disrupt precipitation patterns critical for agricultural production, they said.

And it's not just tropical forests that are a concern. Boreal forests—mainly in Russia—saw unprecedented tree cover loss in 2021, largely driven by fires. Tree cover loss in boreal forests increased 29% year on year in 2021 to 8.55 million hectares, the data show. Russia saw its worst fire season since record keeping began in 2001, losing more the 6.5 million hectares of tree cover, the researchers said,

Forests in general are becoming more vulnerable to wildfire, Seymour said, as they become drier due to climate change. The impact of boreal forest wildfires is two-fold, she said, because peat bogs in regions such as northern Russia—another key carbon sink—also shrink and release emissions. Siberia's peatlands are the largest in the world. Melting permafrost also releases stored carbon and methane.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The ambitions of political leaders in the West, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson especially prominent, can also be undermined by human nature, as recent events show.

At COP26, as head of the host country, Johnson unveiled the global deforestation pledge, but he also marshalled $500 million in funding to protect tropical rainforests in the DRC over a five-year period as part of the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI).

Under the terms of the deal, the DRC is to cap forest cover loss at its 2014-2018 average and make sure deforestation declines. The partnership will also promote the regeneration of 8 million hectares of degraded land and forests, and place 30% of national areas under a protection status.

The DRC is one of six countries—alongside Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo—making up the Congo Basin, home to the world's second-largest rainforest. The Congo Basin absorbs around 4% of global emissions each year.

However, human nature complicates implementing deals such as the CAFI plan in the DRC. The $500 million commitment followed an earlier stage of the CAFI program.

On 1 April, the DRC Inspector General of Finances published an audit of the country's logging concessions. The audit was commissioned in June 2020. It was supposed to be published before the end of 2021 as part of the latest deal.

The audit found that 18 logging concessions had been awarded in breach of a 2002 moratorium on the granting of new forest concessions. In addition, the government failed to receive millions of dollars in fees, taxes, and royalties, it found. The audit recommended that a ban on new logging concessions be upheld.

Ministers directly negotiated title awards between 2014 and 2020, illustrating "all their resistance" to respecting the law, "profiting their personal interests," it said. The former ministers it accuses are Robert Bopolo, Bienvenu Liyota, Athys Kabongo, Franck Mwedi Malila, Amy Ambatobe, and Claude Nyamugabo.

DRC Deputy Prime Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development Eve Bazaiba on 5 April set up a commission to review concession contracts. On 26 April, Bazaiba suspended a number of concessions. She tweeted that 12 concession contracts had been suspended on 1,966,630 hectares.

Environmental groups slammed the audit's findings and Bazaiba's response.

"Bazaiba's suspension of just 12 of dozens of illegally allocated logging concessions is as strange as a dentist removing a single rotten tooth and leaving bad ones in place," Greenpeace Africa Forest Campaigner Serge Sabin Ngwato said in a statement 27 April.

Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) said the suspensions account for only a fraction of the total number of illegal concessions in the country. Joe Eisen, RFUK Executive Director said: "This doesn't go anywhere nearly far enough, and we now call on [Bazaiba to] demonstrate her commitment to forest reforms by cancelling all illegal concessions."

Bottom of the food chain

In addition to mistakes at the top of the food chain, the paucity of options for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society can also lead to deforestation. Part of the latest CAFI deal's funding will be targeted toward supporting DRC citizens whose only aim is to feed their families.

Some 97% of DRC capital Kinshasa's inhabitants—at 13 million people the city's population count dwarfs that of both London and New York—use wood as the fuel for their daily cooking, much of it sourced in an unsustainable manner.

That method of cooking, as well as providing a living for inhabitants closer to forests, is widespread across Africa. Governments such as those of the continent's most populous nation Nigeria are among the many trying to push for alternative fuels for cooking. Nigeria has a larger population than the UK, France, and Italy combined.

The key to helping small-scale farmers in the Congo Basin and West Africa is providing clean energy and creating support systems that make sure they and their families have enough food, said Paul Schoenmakers, head of impact at chocolate bar maker Tony's Chocolonely.

Schoenmakers told the FP summit 28 April that deforestation has been a huge problem in the cocoa industry, particularly in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. The West African nations are the top two cocoa producers globally.

Cote d'Ivoire supplies 40% of the world's cocoa, but only receives between 5% and 7% of the profits from the sector, according to the World Bank, which added that about 54.9% of Ivorian cocoa farmers and their families live below the poverty line.

The chocolate company executive said that over the past 20 years the country has lost 25% of its primary tropical forest end since the 1960s top figure is 80%. "Poverty is the root cause of deforestation," he said.

Further initiatives

But the introduction of initiatives to protect the globe's rainforests and safeguard their pivotal role in combatting climate change didn't end in Glasgow.

On Earth Day, 22 April, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order to safeguard mature and old-growth forests on domestic federal lands, strengthen reforestation partnerships across the US, and combat global deforestation.

The order includes investigating reduction or elimination of US government purchases of agricultural commodities grown on illegally or recently deforested lands as well as ramping up its foreign assistance and financing tools to combat deforestation around the globe.

Environmental groups welcomed the move. "Our federal forest lands sequester 35 million mt of carbon, making them a natural solution in the toolbox to tackle the climate crisis," said Sierra Club Deputy Legislative Director for Public Lands and Wildlife Protection Kirin Kennedy. "Conserving and protecting our remaining old and mature growth trees and forests has been the missing link of US climate policy for decades."

It's all about recognizing and putting a true value on forests, which provide a service to humanity, Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada told the FP conference. Costa Rica has been paying people for environmental services for a number of decades, including protecting primary forests, he said, and is the only tropical country to have halted deforestation.

Nature-based solutions can deliver 30% of the CO2 reductions needed to get to the Paris Agreement goals, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment's deputy director, Zitouni Ould-Dada, told an earlier FP summit session.

Meantime, a bill introduced in October 2021 is also working its way through the US Congress that would restrict access to US markets for commodities originating from illegally deforested land. Companies must take responsibility for their supply chains, Schoenmakers told the Foreign Policy event and that requires governments in consuming nations to introduce regulations for companies and frameworks that encourage responsibility.

Posted 02 May 2022 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Senior Editor

This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.


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