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1 November 2021

Can we trust world leaders’ pledge to end deforestation?

Countries, including Brazil, have pledged at Cop26 to stop chopping down trees by 2030. But the proof will be in the delivery.

By Philippa Nuttall

World leaders will today commit, at Cop26 in Glasgow, to essentially end deforestation worldwide by 2030. 

Leaders representing over 85 per cent of the world’s forests — including Canada, Russia, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo —  will commit to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation in the next nine years. 

The pledge includes the commitment to spend £8.75 billion ($12bn) of public funds to protect and restore forests, alongside £5.3 billion ($7.2 billion) of private investment. CEOs from more than 30 financial institutions with over $8.7trn of global assets – including Aviva, Schroders and Axa – will commit to eliminate investment in activities linked to deforestation.   

However, the proof will be in the delivery. “The real challenge is not in making the announcements,” said Professor Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University College London. “Careful monitoring of the delivery of each initiative is essential for success.”

Forests help mitigate the impacts of climate change by absorbing carbon emissions. Trees also help with adaptation to increased and more severe weather events — providing shade from heatwaves, cooling cities and helping to stop soil erosion during heavy downpours.

But the world’s forests are not in great shape. Last year, the planet lost an area of tree cover greater than Britain, with the rate of increase rising most in primary tropical forests. While almost a quarter of global emissions come from land use activity, including deforestation, logging and farming.

In Brazil alone, between August 2020 and July 2021, 10,476 square kilometres – an area nearly seven times bigger than greater London and 13 times the size of New York City, of rainforest was destroyed, shows data released by Imazon, a Brazilian research institute. How exactly Brazilian President Javier Bolsonaro, not known for his tree-hugging tendencies, will turn this around is unclear.

“Trees” (along with coal, cars and cash) are one of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s measures of success for Cop26 and he is expected to give an upbeat speech today. “These great teeming ecosystems – these cathedrals of nature – are the lungs of our planet,” he will tell delegates. “Forests support communities, livelihoods and food supply, and absorb the carbon we pump into the atmosphere. With today’s unprecedented pledges, we will have a chance to end humanity’s long history as nature’s conqueror, and instead become its custodian.”

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Acknowledgement of indigenous people and their importance as key protectors of forests in the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration received a particularly warm welcome from many countries. Tuntiak Katan, representing communities from the rainforests of Africa, Latin America and Indonesia, said they would be carefully monitoring how the funds are invested. But “if 80 per cent of what is proposed is directed to supporting land rights and the proposals of indigenous and local communities, we will see a dramatic reversal in the current trend that is destroying our natural resources,” he said.

Alongside the forestry declaration, governments representing 75 per cent of global trade in commodities that can threaten forests – such as palm oil, cocoa and soya – will also sign up to a new pledge. It will commit governments to actions aimed at delivering more sustainable trade and reducing pressure on forests. The pledge will include support for smallholder farmers and improvements to the transparency of supply chains, said the UK government. 

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