HOW DO WE KEEP PROMISES ON DEFORESTATION? TOGETHER.
In its annual assessment of global risks, the World Economic Forum called climate action failure the #1 global risk this decade. And given the year we’ve just had, I think that’s saying something!
If we do fall short on climate action, including on the recent Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, illegal deforestation will be a big reason for that failure. An estimated 69% of tropical forests lost to agro-conversion (i.e., clearing forests for cattle, soy, palm oil, and other commodity crops) is actually happening illegally. Countries have laws to protect their forests; they’re just not being followed. In Brazil, the illegality rate is closer to 95%. Most of these agricultural products are exported to consumer markets around the world, making us all complicit in forest loss.
So far, companies have been trying to fight this battle largely alone. But global commodity supply chains are complicated. Importers have had a very, very hard time determining where their purchases originally came from, and whether they are deforestation-free (the ideal), legal but unsustainable, or downright illegal. They have limited ability to get forest countries to enforce environmental protection laws. And while some companies are trying to do the right thing, there will always be laggards willing to deal in cheap, illegally produced commodities if they can get away with it.
In recent years, regulators in consumer markets in the US, EU, and UK have started to look at trade legislation that would keep products linked to deforestation off of supermarket shelves. These could reinforce corporate zero-deforestation pledges, and set a minimum standard for the laggards.
Our latest commentary shows how these pieces – voluntary and regulatory – can fit together. Regulators set a “legality”-based floor (remember, if everything entering the market were at minimum legally produced, that could eliminate 69% of the deforestation problem), while companies could aim for even higher standards of sustainability to demonstrate leadership and potentially capture price premiums (similar to Fair Trade coffee, for example). You can see how this works in the graphic below.
Importantly, this strategy is built on mutual respect and reciprocity for good-faith actions by the forest countries exporting commodities, as they work to enforce their own laws to protect forests. We need global cooperation, not unilateral trade barriers that might trigger pushback instead of progress. Cooperation is at the heart of the Paris Agreement, and it likewise needs to be at the heart of efforts to end forest loss.
We believe this approach can work, because we’ve seen it work before. We’ve seen a similar story play out in our 20 years of working on the illegal timber trade, and for conflict minerals and illegally harvested seafood.