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World leaders promise to halt deforestation at COP26, put agricultural sector under spotlight

02 November 2021 Max Tingyao Lin

More than 100 world leaders vowed to stop deforestation in a pledge that secured at least $22.4 billion in public and private funding, with an impact that could ripple along the agricultural supply chain.

Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Russia, and the US are among the 105 countries that committed to the goal of halting forest loss and land degradation by 2030 in the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

"This is the long-term sustainable path to ending the loss of our forest, protecting our sacred biodiversity, and helping to keep alive" the ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the COP26 summit 2 November.

Forests cover 31% of the global land mass, or more than 4 billion hectares, according to the UN. More than 86% of the world's forests are in the 105 signatory countries.

Forest ecosystems are the largest terrestrial carbon sink, absorbing roughly 2 billion metric tons (mt) of CO2-equivalent a year. But the rate of deforestation averaged 10 million hectares per year between 2015 and 2020.

"Our forests are also nature's carbon capture, cycling CO2 out of our atmosphere," said US President Joe Biden, adding that America will help the world restore at least 200 million hectares of forests and other ecosystems by 2030.

In a bid to halt deforestation in developing countries, the EU and 11 countries—including Japan, South Korea, the UK, and the US—pledged to provide $12 billion to support activities, including restoring degraded land and tackling wildfires by 2025.

Separately, five countries and nine philanthropic donors that include Ford Foundation promised to spend at least $1.7 billion on advancing indigenous peoples' and local communities' forest tenure rights in the same period.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Bezos Earth Fund (BEF) teamed up with the EU and 10 countries to establish a $1.5 billion fund to protect the Congo Basin, home to the second-largest rainforest in the world.

The UK said that another $7.2 billion funding from the private sector has been mobilized, without providing details.

Corporate responsibility

In a separate announcement 2 November, the BEF pledged $2 billion to restore forestation and reduce carbon footprint in the global food and agricultural systems.

Part of the money will be used to revitalize grasslands and integrate trees into farmland in Africa with local partners such as AFR100.

"Investing in nature through both traditional and innovative approaches is essential to combat climate change," Bezos said.

Also, the LEAF Coalition—composed of 19 multinational firms—said it raised $1 billion to acquire carbon offsets from forestation projects in tropical and sub-tropical countries.

Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Nepal, and Vietnam will be the first countries to sell carbon credits that meet ART's REDD+ Environmental Excellence Standard.

"We need to create economic incentives that keep trees in the ground," said Unilever CEO Alan Jope, whose company is part of LEAF. "The best carbon storage technology that is available is nothing other than trees."

Pressure from financiers, regulators

Meanwhile, financiers in the public and private sectors are signaling that they could steer away from clients not deemed to be environmentally sustainable.

Nine multilateral development banks—including the World Bank and the European Investment Bank—jointly pledged to do more work to protect nature and stop biodiversity loss.

"We will work together to begin the process to better understand the financial and systemic risk of nature loss to our public and private portfolios and the current impacts of our portfolios on nature," they said.

A group of over 30 financial institutions with $8.7 trillion under management promised to eliminate investment activities linked to deforestation driven by agricultural commodities like palm oil, soy, cattle products, and pulp and paper.

They will help their clients reduce such deforestation risks across the agricultural supply chain by establishing nature-based policies, according to a joint statement signed by Aviva, Storebrand Asset Management, and others.

In addition, 28 countries—including Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia—committed to reducing pressure on forests in the Forests, Agriculture and Commodity Trade Statement.

Their governments, which can regulate 75% of global trade in key commodities linked to deforestation risks, promised to explore policy options to incentivize sustainable agriculture trade.

Cargill, Bunge, AMD, and seven other global agricultural trading houses also said they will unveil a supply chain roadmap that can help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C by COP27, which is due to be held in November 2022.

The companies, with a combined annual revenue of almost $500 billion, will seek collaboration on enhancing policy environments, improving transparency on Scope 3 emissions, and bettering livelihoods for farmers.

Mixed responses

Some environmentalists questioned the credibility of those new pledges.

"Many of these governments have a history of trampling Indigenous rights and destroying forests," Greenpeace tweeted. "They must provide assurance that these funds won't go to forest destroyers."

In September 2014, a coalition of 60 governments and 52 companies pledged to halve the deforestation rate and restore 150 million hectares of degraded lands by 2020. A recent progress report on the New York Declaration on Forests found many signatory countries did not establish policy tools to reduce deforestation.

Others sounded a much more optimistic tone, though.

Justin Lewis, executive director of World Economic Forum's Tropical Forest Alliance, said the initiatives announced by governments, banks, and companies are a "collective achievement" worth celebrating.

"This signifies the biggest moment we've had in forests and nature, probably ever. It will be something we look back on and as a moment we started to turn the tide," he said.

University College London Professor Simon Lewis, who specializes in the ecology of tropical forests, said immediate efforts are needed.

"Delivery will be hard. [But there are] more countries, money, and actors than past efforts," Lewis said.

Posted 02 November 2021 by Max Tingyao Lin, Principal Journalist, Climate and Sustainability

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