23 September 2014 | Heading into this week’s United Nations Climate Summit in New York City, it would have been easy to take the pessimistic view that this would be another exhausting round of discussions where no concrete action was taken to address the climate challenge. But this summit is off to a fast start as governments, multinational corporations, civil society and indigenous peoples have issued the New York Declaration on Forests a joint commitment to cut forest loss in half by 2020 and completely end it by 2030.
The pledge, if successfully implemented, would reduce global emissions by anywhere from 4.5 to 8.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year equivalent to removing the carbon emissions produced by the one billion cars currently on the world’s roads. The declaration also calls for restoring more than 350 million hectares of forests and croplands an area greater than the size of India.
It’s an ambitious pledge, but certainly not an empty one. It comes backed with a promised down payment of $1 billion in economic incentives for countries to reduce forest loss. Norway on its own has pledged up to $300 million to Peru and $150 million to Liberia to support their forest preservation efforts, bringing Norway’s total support for climate and forests initiatives through 2020 to about $3 billion.
The declaration comes just six weeks after governors from forested states across the world pledged to end deforestation in their states under the Rio Branco Declaration, but only if international funding materializes. It also drew broad support from indigenous peoples, who haven’t always been enthusiastic cheerleaders or partners in the past.
“The ancient stewards of the forests are standing up and saying we’re willing to be partners in this declaration, said Lou Leonard, Vice President of Climate Change for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), adding that the diversity of donors also provided reason for optimism. “It provides a more realistic and complete picture of the loss of tropical forests and gets all the right players signed on to the solution.
The announcement comes one day after the United Kingdom pledged £144 million ($235 million) split between two programs designed to jump-start sustainable land-use programs across the developing world. The first, a £60 million pledge (US$97 million) for a new program called the Investments in Forests and Sustainable Land Use initiative, will be used to form public-private partnerships with communities, local farmers and local and international businesses to manage forests sustainably and support and encourage agriculture that does not cause further deforestation.
“Through this program, we want to set up partnerships with those companies that are committed to taking deforestation out of their supply chains and we want to work with smallholder farmers to help them comply with those new market requirements and produce timber, palm oil, and other agricultural commodities in ways that do not cause further deforestation, said Justine Greening, U.K. Secretary of State for International Development. “We know that smallholder oil palm farmers are getting around half of the yield that they should be when compared to professionally run plantations. So by supporting investments that help improve smallholder productivity on their existing plantations, we can help those farmers increase their yields without having to clear more forest.”
The second, of £84 million ($137 million) will be available for the Forest Governance, Markets and Climate program, which works to close the European Union market to illegally-harvested timber and support developing countries in tackling weak governance that allows illegal deforestation. The program has already had a “transformational impact in countries such as Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia, she said. The additional funding is going to allow this governance reform work to be scaled up in 15 countries already being supported and extend the program to new countries, Greening said.
“We’ll also be going beyond tackling the illegal timber trade and looking at other commodities such as palm oil, soya and beef because we know that many cattle pastures and plantation for palm oil and soya are sited on land that was illegally cleared of forest, she said.
The U.K’s new financial commitment will also support local, civil society organizations in helping communities acquire land rights and ways to mediate disputes between communities and companies, Greening said. The U.K. has already implemented a £20 million program in Nepal to secure land rights for hill communities. About 40% of forestland in Nepal is now under community control, and deforestation has virtually ended in these (community-owned) areas, with many degraded hill slopes now being reforested.
However, “community rights over forests are still the exception rather than the norm in too many countries, she said.
Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom also promised to push for large-scale economic incentives as part of the international climate negotiations in Paris in 2015.
“I asked for countries and companies to bring bold pledges, and here they are, said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “The New York Declaration aims to reduce more climate pollution each year than the United States emits annually, and it doesn’t stop there. Forests are not only a critical part of the climate solution the actions agreed today will reduce poverty, enhance food security, improve the rule of law, secure the rights of indigenous peoples and benefit communities around the world.
The declaration builds on the progress already being made by companies such as Unilever seeking to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. Through the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), 400 companies representing $3 trillion in net revenues have committed to sustainably source the four key commodities that drive deforestation: palm oil, soy, beef and timber.
Jeff Seabright, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer and co-chair of CGF’s sustainability steering group, said companies such as his want to make sure the goods they produce do not come at the expense of the forests. “That’s a big task and we cant do it alone, he said.
In the past year, 60% of globally traded palm oil was sustainably sourced by companies such as Wilmar, Golden Agri-Resources and Cargill “a very, very impressive demand signal in the marketplace, Seabright said. These three companies have pledged to work together on implementing their deforestation-free sourcing policies and joined the Indonesian Business Council in asking incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo to support their efforts through legislation and policies as part of the declaration.
Deforestation is responsible for roughly 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the devastating impact it has on ecosystems and biodiversity.
WWF’s Leonard said it’s critical now to maintain the momentum going into Lima, where donor countries must first make good on their promises to fill the Green Climate Fund, which will demonstrate credibility for the new pledges.
“The declaration has the chance to be just what we need at this moment, but it can’t be everything we need, he said. “We need this to live up to the promise. The actions by indigenous people in coming into this conversation, the very fact that the private sector is getting into the policy conversation and leveraging the full weight of their supply chains and the partnership between governments and indigenous people that hasn’t happened before, that’s the promise of the declaration.