From ‘zero deforestation’ to lasting solutions: Beyond COP21, what is needed to save forests?

Following a spate of global zero-deforestation initiatives and commitments at last month's Paris climate conference, environmental campaigner and Forum for the Future founder Jonathon Porritt investigates the practical, sustainable solutions needed to mitigate and eliminate tropical deforestation.

Continuing high levels of tropical deforestation are of great concern – particularly in countries like Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and even Brazil, where there are worrying signals that the really good progress made in reducing deforestation is now at risk all over again.

Such deforestation is a major driver of carbon emissions – responsible for approximately 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

That’s why there is still a wholly understandable urge to get policymakers and businesses to sign up to simple ‘zero-deforestation’ commitments. It’s commendably cut-and-dried – definitive, even – and makes a snappy sound-bite that it’s easy for people to understand. ‘Deforestation-free’ becomes a simple way to reassure consumers.

Landmark moment 

Much progress has been made by private sector companies in reducing levels of deforestation over the last few years. A lot of it has been focussed on particular industries like palm oil, which have been responsible for a great deal of deforestation over the last few decades.

Last September’s New York Declaration on Forests was a landmark moment in forest protection, and over the last eighteen months, many of the world’s biggest brands, palm oil producers and traders, have announced ‘no deforestation’ supply chain pledges.

The commitments that came out of Paris COP21 last month are also very encouraging, with a firm pledge that by 2050 any carbon emissions would need to be balanced through “removal by sinks”. Since forests are one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon sequestration (i.e. carbon sinks), the commitment should add to the momentum for improving forest protection.

But, ‘zero deforestation’ isn’t as simple as it sounds. There isn’t even an agreed consensus on what is meant by ‘deforestation’, let alone ‘zero deforestation’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization have different standards, for example.

What’s more, nobody (including NGOs like Greenpeace) really means ‘zero’ (as in literally not one single tree cut down) when they say it. Little wonder that this remains such a controversial area, and something which, as such, has been on the agenda of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for some time.

A recent, independent study – called the High Carbon Stock Science Study – which was co-chaired by myself and backed by some of the world’s biggest companies in the palm oil industry (producers, traders and users of palm oil, including Unilever, Sime Darby and Cargill), has developed a new methodology for future oil palm development that is very much in line with the Paris Agreement. New plantations will only be able to proceed if they can demonstrate that they are doing so on a carbon neutral basis.

Parisian paradox

This is not a ‘zero deforestation’ position, but rather a ‘zero net emissions’ position – which is exactly what world leaders in Paris committed to achieving for the global economy by 2050. We are urging the oil palm industry to get there by 2020.

This would be achieved through a system of active forest guardianship – i.e. companies would gain their license to operate with some conversion of young forest, below a strict carbon threshold, only if they commit to ongoing protection of important areas of forest which contain more carbon.

The idea that by allowing some conversion of forests you protect other (more important) areas in the long term may sound paradoxical. But the reality is that most tropical forest is found in developing countries that are keen to find ways to improve their, often very limited, economies.

A country like Gabon, for instance, has forest cover of over 85%, so the idea of ‘zero deforestation’ can in practice mean ‘no development’. The Indonesian Government has historically felt much the same way: they have seen the wealth brought to impoverished rural communities by cash-crops like palm oil, and therefore see attempts to limit agricultural development as limiting economic growth.

There’s an old saying in the sustainability sector: a forest that pays is a forest that stays. This is because without opportunities for development, local communities will often – for entirely understandable reasons such as growing food – encroach on forest areas that are seen as being part of the community’s land. This constant encroachment does not differentiate between areas of forest where there’s high biodiversity, or areas that contain high amounts of carbon e.g. peat soils or primary forests.

Sustainable solutions 

The HCS+ methodology, as proposed by the Study, therefore recommends that limited development may be permissible, but only so long as various rigorous conditions are met. These include an upper limit on the carbon contained in the forest, so older ‘high-carbon stock’ or primary forests are avoided, as well as the condition that carbon neutrality within the concession or area is achieved.

There is also a requirement for development to have clear socio-economic benefits for local communities, and for the value of plantations to be shared more equitably with local communities through education, housing and other such schemes.

Absolutist slogans like ‘zero deforestation’ undoubtedly help focus attention on the problem of continuing deforestation, but they don’t necessarily help deliver the practical – let alone sustainable – solutions.

If the rights and interests of local communities are not properly taken into account, and if the necessary policy changes cannot be swiftly incorporated into national or regional jurisdictions, then ‘solutions’ almost certainly won’t stick – and the forests, atmosphere and climate change will remain as much at risk as they were before.

Jonathon Porritt is co-chair of the HCS+ steering committee, which oversees the HCS Science Study

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