World leaders gathered at the COP26 climate summit are touting their agreement to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 as essential to meeting international climate goals, but experts are concerned the pact won’t deliver on its promises and doesn’t go far enough to protect some of the world’s most important carbon sinks – including Canada’s boreal forest.
At the UN climate conference in Glasgow, more than 100 countries and the European Union announced US$19.2-billion in public and private funding to help developing countries restore degraded land. Canada, Russia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among those who have endorsed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, which covers forests totalling nearly 34 million square kilometres.
The pledge includes a US$1.5-billion fund to protect the Congo Basin, which is home to the second-largest tropical rain forest in the world; the area has been under threat from logging, mining and agriculture.
Chief executives representing more than 30 financial institutions will also commit to ending investment in activities linked to deforestation. In addition, the governments of 28 countries, representing 75 per cent of the global trade in palm oil, cocoa and soya, have agreed to a set of actions to reduce deforestation and provide support to farmers.
Forests are critical to international efforts to slow the pace of climate change and, ideally, keep global warming to below 1.5 C above preindustrial times: They absorb roughly one-third of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels annually.
“These great teeming ecosystems – these cathedrals of nature – are the lungs of our planet,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “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.”
The world lost 258,000 square kilometres of forest in 2020, according to the World Resources Institute’s deforestation tracking initiative Global Forest Watch. That’s an area larger than Britain. A forest area the size of roughly 27 soccer fields is estimated to be cut down every minute.
Although few details have so far been released, the Glasgow declaration has been met with skepticism from forestry experts and environmentalists who see this as a case of a déja vu. Countries around the world first set a 2030 goal to end deforestation in 2014 in New York, but deforestation has continued and, in some instances, accelerated since then. It’s unclear how the pledge will be monitored or enforced, or how it can be humanely achieved given that deforestation is driven by a growing global population and the associated rise in per capita food consumption.
It also appears that the agreement centres on reducing the amount of forested land that’s converted to other uses, primarily agriculture; it does not seem to include land that’s clear-cut for logging and then replanted.
This means the declaration stands to have greater implications for a country such as Brazil, where swaths of the Amazon rain forest are being cut down for cattle ranching and agricultural production, than for a country such as Canada, where the forest sector primarily includes logging, pulp and paper, and wood product manufacturing. Less than half of 1 per cent of forested areas in Canada were converted to other land uses between 1990 and 2018, according to Natural Resources Canada.
Michael Polanyi, policy and campaign manager at conservation charity Nature Canada, said he is “deeply concerned” that the pact doesn’t explicitly include the impact of clear-cutting and logging. “It perpetuates this dynamic of northern countries pointing the finger at the loss of massive tropical rain forests in southern countries, while ignoring the loss of boreal forests in Canada or Russia.” He noted that Canada has roughly a third of the world’s boreal forests – a type of forest system that stores more carbon, per hectare, than tropical rain forests.
Mr. Polanyi said it will be hard for Canada to put pressure on countries such as Brazil to reduce deforestation when Canada is continuing to cut down forests “in our own country for our economic benefit.” In addition, he said, Canada must take a hard look at its emissions reporting practices.
A report released last week by Nature Canada and several other non-profits said Ottawa has been underreporting total carbon dioxide emissions from the forestry sector by more than 80 million tonnes a year. The main driver of the disparity, Mr. Polanyi said, is a “biased” accounting approach that excludes emissions released from wildfires but takes credit for the carbon stored in the trees that regenerate in the area.
The president of the Canadian chapter of the Forest Stewardship Council, which sets standards for what constitutes a responsibly managed forest and whose members include both environmentalists and forest industry stakeholders, said the certification body has long promoted the sustainable management of Canada’s forests.
“We have the most stringent system to maintain the integrity of our forests in Canada, especially around Indigenous rights and preserving biodiversity,” said François Dufresne, adding that the council has an indicator dedicated entirely to preserving the threatened boreal woodland caribou in its national forest management standard.
Brazil, which is home to the world’s largest tropical rain forests, signed onto the Glasgow declaration, despite soaring deforestation of the Amazon under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.
Despite slight decreases in forest loss in the Amazon in recent months, deforestation remains nearly double what it was in the first half of 2018, prior to Mr. Bolsonaro taking office. Persistently high deforestation helps to fuel wildfires, with the felled trees serving as tinder.
In addition to the Glasgow declaration, five countries and a group of global charities also pledged to provide US$1.7-billion in financing to support Indigenous people’s conservation of forests and to strengthen their land rights.
Tuntiak Katan, from the Coordination of Indigenous Communities of the Amazon Basin, welcomed the pledges coming out of the international climate summit, telling the BBC that Indigenous communities were on the front line of stopping deforestation.
“For years we have protected our way of life and that has protected ecosystems and forests,” he said. “Without us, no money or policy can stop climate change.”
Tens of thousands of people from world leaders to climate protesters are in Glasgow for COP26. Adam Radwanski, The Globe's climate change columnist, says the size and attention around the summit makes it harder to leave without meaningful agreements on climate action.
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