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COP26 & the Latest Deforestation Pledge

Roar writer Alessandro Kosak on COP’s deforestation pledge.

COP26 has been the subject of widespread coverage, debate and scrutiny over the past few weeks after world leaders descended on Glasgow. They were tasked with reaffirming key climate pledges and providing concrete details of climate action. The climate emergency continues to gain more public support, as extreme weather has become normalised during a summer that saw widespread forest fires around the globe—including Siberia of all places.

With many world leaders and key businesspeople having travelled to Glasgow on private jets, the expectations for meaningful change were relatively low, and with COP being famous for vacuous headline commitments, it is important to analyse just how effective these policies have been.

The first of these major headlines coming out of the conference was the deforestation pledge. Deforestation of mass carbon basins has been a major ecological worry since the 1950s, but with global issues of population growth and urbanisation rising exponentially over the last 70 years, no meaningful net gains have been made. Global deforestation rates have been declining since the 1980s, and due to the pandemic, there was little solace in the 5.4%  reduction of global fossil CO2 emissions. But in 2021, with most of the world attempting to normalise to a pandemic, fossil fuel CO2 emissions are expected to actually exceed pre-pandemic levels.  

The world’s forests are once again integral in their role as carbon sinks that act to counter the un-sustainability of global fossil fuel consumption. The deforestation pledge at Glasgow promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 by investing £14 billion of public and private funds to this goal.

This sounds like a lot, but when you condor that the minimum estimate for funding needed to simply fill the gap between current funding for nature conservation and where we need to be is around $150 billion, the amount is rather laughable. It is especially ridiculous when you compare it to other budgets such as defence spending in the UK which is at £44.6 billion in 2020/21, a rise of £2 billion from the previous year.

Which international deforestation initiatives will this new budget be spent on, and how well have they fared?  This is where the UN’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) enters, an intra-agency framework that aims to protect forests in line with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Agenda. With 65 partner countries, REDD+ aims to incentivise states to reduce deforestation, forest degradation and reward them financially for the carbon and ecological services their forests provide. REDD’s framework allows all market players (the private sector, multilateral funds and other countries) to essentially pay countries with major forest carbon sinks to ensure their protection and continued ability to combat rising carbon emissions.

This thinking is typical of environmental economics; the internalisation of market “externalities” so that the economy can process environmental costs. It doesn’t necessarily change business practices that are harmful to the climate but instead asserts that the market will correct environmental degradation by affecting their prices. As a result, the carbon market is essential to REDD’s success and there still is no global established price on carbon, greatly reducing the ability to internalise these costs on a larger market scale.

Covid-19 has certainly not helped things. As all global priorities inevitably shifted to stemming the global pandemic, so did all the funding and attention for REDD. Additionally, the global recession caused by the pandemic was felt disproportionally in Latin America, especially Brazil, whose deforestation rate increased to the highest level in a decade.

Needless to say, the deforestation pledge has come at a crucial point. With Latin American deforestation rates rising by as much as 64% in April 2020 from 2019, the inclusion of Brazil in the pledge was very promising. Compared to the aforementioned 2014 pledge, now Russia, China and Brazil have all committed— a welcome surprise. Especially  Brazil and Russia, which have two of the world’s largest forest carbon sinks, and the climate change denial from each respective presidency.

So how do we approach the latest deforestation pledge? Unfortunately, it is with cynicism. Even though the 131 countries that were signatories at Glasgow account for 90% of forest coverage, there has been considerable confusion in the aftermath of the declaration among important signees.

For instance, Indonesia has one of the largest forest basins in the world, walking back on its commitment to the pledge days after they signed. Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Indonesia’s environment minister, tweeted “Forcing Indonesia to (reach) zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair.” The country’s vice foreign minister, Mahendra Siregar, added to the confusion by stating, “The declaration issued does not refer at all to the end deforestation by 2030.

This is not a good sign for a declaration that is rife with ambiguity. According to Diana Ruiz, the senior forests campaigner for Greenpeace USA, the Glasgow declaration is a large blanket statement with little information on how it will be achieved and what is expected from signees. “There isn’t any clarity or alignment between the countries that just signed,” she said. “There is no framework on how they will meet their targets.

Standing upon an international stage and making a statement that countries will end deforestation before a certain date doesn’t take into account the real nuts and bolts of it. How will it happen? What are the targets? What does this mean for countries like Indonesia and Brazil, which are introducing policies that encourage more deforestation that contradict what they just pledged?”

Herein lies the wider issue that global environmental initiatives face. It seems that the ambiguity was purposeful, as it allows multiple different parties and views to back into their own interpretations and avoid major concessions towards climate change. Deforestation still presents a possible solution to radically minimise CO2 emissions and help countries reach the global temperature goals set out by the UN and COP. But with the political paralysis, we have seen disrupted climate initiatives and with the bumpy track record of anti-deforestation pledges and frameworks such as REDD+, it is simply rational to hold out praise for the latest instalment in the deforestation saga.

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