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Talking Timber: What Progress Has Been Made on Deforestation at COP27?

Deforestation is once again at the forefront of COP27 negotiations, yet there has been little progress since the promises made at Glasgow in 2021.

Stemming the loss: deforestation in countries such as Brazil has increased significantly in recent years. Image: Marcio Isensee e Sá / Adobe Stock

Action on deforestation has been a key topic of discussion at COP27, amid concern that a lack of progress could imperil net zero targets. Deforestation remains a critical risk, one that threatens lives and livelihoods across the globe. Yet this year’s commitments are already being criticised for falling short of the action that is needed, against a historical precedent of missed targets and political reprioritisation. Urgent action to tackle deforestation is needed now more than ever.

Deforestation Endangers Global Security

Deforestation is more than just an environmental problem; it comes with an array of security challenges. Forests are home to more than 75% of life on earth, and approximately 16% of the world’s human population relies on forests for shelter, livelihoods, water, fuel, and food security. As forests around the world are subjected to illegal logging, these benefits are under threat.

Trees play an important role in water cycles and as forest cover is reduced, less water evaporates into cloud cover, increasing the likelihood of severe drought. Loss of freshwater is considered one of the most immediate threats to national security, impacting both water and food supplies. Similarly, without trees to anchor the soil, soil erosion and decreasing soil fertility negatively impact surrounding agriculture. Tree felling also directly impacts the ecological value of biodiverse regions. Deforestation has adverse effects on tourism and local livelihoods, in addition to threatening the existence of some 60 million indigenous people who reside in forests worldwide.

As well as threatening the environmental conditions vital to human survival, deforestation also endangers national security with its links to organised crime. Illegal deforestation is not a standalone crime – in many regions environmental crimes are carried out by large-scale organised criminal networks. Many of these criminal groups are armed, operate transnationally and are involved in other illicit activities, such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining. Illegal deforestation also has clear links to other forms of criminality, including corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.

Crucially, deforestation also threatens our climate security. When left untouched, forests counteract our contributions to climate change. Forests are carbon sinks and mitigate emissions by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Yet sadly, when forests are disturbed – either cut, burned or removed – they do the reverse and emit carbon. Deforestation is responsible for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Developments at COP27

By the close of last year’s COP26, 141 countries had signed up to the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, pledging to end deforestation by 2030. Despite limited progress over the last year, there have been some notable developments since the opening of COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh.

In 2010, hundreds of the world’s largest consumer companies committed to achieving net zero deforestation by 2020 – a target which they failed to meet

Over 25 countries have banded together to launch a new group at COP27. Members of the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership have committed to meeting twice a year to keep track of progress and hold each other accountable to pledges on deforestation. COP26 President Alok Sharma hailed this partnership as ‘a critical next step to collectively deliver on this promise and help keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C alive’.

Countries have also pledged additional funding, with the total now in the region of $12 billion. Germany doubled its financing for forests, promising an additional $1 billion. Despite being among the countries in this partnership and having hosted COP26 last year, the UK has not pledged any further funding.

The private sector has, however, renewed its commitments to end deforestation. In Sharm El-Sheikh 14 major food trading companies launched a new road map designed to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains for soy, beef and palm oil by 2025. Private funding towards the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership has also increased, with an additional $3.6 billion pledged on top of the $7.2 billion pledged in 2021.

Empty Promises?

The commitments made so far at COP27 are certainly a step in the right direction, but while positive on paper, political will to implement such commitments may be lacking. Although progress seems to have been made on the Declaration on Forests and Land Use at COP27, there has been minimal headway since COP26, and no meetings were held between COPs to advance the promises made in 2021.

The new partnership has also come under fire. Many have criticised the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership for relying on tree planting and carbon markets – trading systems where carbon credits are sold to offset omissions. This has resulted in accusations from prominent NGOs of ‘carbon trickery’ which ‘green light(s) eight more years of forest destruction’.

In addition, in 2010, hundreds of the world’s largest consumer companies committed to achieving net zero deforestation by 2020 – a target which they failed to meet, and which casts their ambitious commitments at COP27 in a less positive light. A UN group has criticised net zero pledges that rely on greenwashing and corner-cutting, emphasising the futility of climate pledges that are not backed by climate action.

International support should be tailored to the needs of the countries most impacted by deforestation, recognising that they are best placed to take action against it

The impact of the war in Ukraine on the world’s climate commitments demonstrates their vulnerability to geopolitical changes. Despite powerful rhetoric from world leaders, climate action is subject to the whims of governments and politicians.

Nowhere is this clearer currently than in Brazil. Despite committing to initiatives to end deforestation and forest loss at COP26, President Jair Bolsonaro instead reversed years of progress by cutting funding for environmental agencies, reversing enforcement measures and weakening the land rights of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples. The result was a massive increase in deforestation – up 52% between August 2019 and July 2021 compared to the previous three years. This threatens to push the Amazon rainforest to its tipping point.

However, the recent victory of Lula da Silva in Brazil’s elections gives some cause for hope. Many are optimistic that the new presidency will advance efforts to reverse deforestation in the Amazon, as opposed to the empty promises made at COP26 by Bolsonaro. Lula oversaw a significant decrease in deforestation during his previous tenure and has promised to ‘fight for zero deforestation’ during his new presidency.

The case of Brazil highlights the shortcomings of the world’s climate commitments. Neither countries nor corporations are held to account for their failings, leaving climate action vulnerable to political tides – rendering it a luxury rather than a necessity. To ensure meaningful progress to address the climate emergency, both political will and binding commitments are needed. The continued presence of private jets and fossil fuel lobbyists at COP27 adds to concerns – hinting that this is unlikely to be a pivotal moment in taking the drastic action needed against climate change. Yet time is running out to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Beyond COP27

The commitments made at COP27 provide an important foundation for climate progress, yet without meaningful action on the ground, such pledges mean very little. International efforts need to be directed towards identifying and rewarding tangible success on deforestation. Indonesia, for example, has significantly decreased deforestation over recent years, but will require access to investment funds, technical support and debt relief from the international community to sustain such gains.

This should be the priority from now on. While grand commitments and financial pledges are a starting point, international support should be tailored to the needs of the countries most impacted by deforestation, recognising that they are best placed to take action against it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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