On a rainy morning at Climate Week NYC in September, dark clouds crack with thunder over Manhattan’s traffic-jammed streets. At the Colgate-Palmolive headquarters on Park Avenue, demonstrators have gathered outside as the CEO of the candy bar giant, Mars Inc., Grant Reid, kicks off the latest report tracking corporate progress on a nagging climate problem: rampant deforestation.
“A lack of meaningful progress hasn’t created a great deal of trust amongst our valued stakeholders,” says Reid, referring to the protesters who have unfurled banners both outside and inside today’s meeting that read “Broken promises mean forests burn.”
Reid is one of thousands of business leaders, policy-makers and civil-society advocates who have gathered in New York (after a two-year pandemic hiatus) for more than 500 roundtables, panels and side events scattered across the city. It’s all part of the drum-beating prelude to the 27th UN climate summit taking place in Egypt this November. A laundry list of corporate pledges and climate solutions are on discussion boards here, and one message comes up again and again: there is no meeting Paris Agreement climate targets without halting forest loss.
After a decade of failing to deliver on deforestation-free pledges, 21 consumer goods corporations, including Mars, Unilever and Nestlé, launched the Forest Positive Coalition (FPC) last year, hinged on a “new theory of change.” Back in 2010, more than 400 companies promised that all their soy, palm oil, beef, and pulp and paper would be “zero net deforestation” by 2020. Still more companies joined the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014. The deadline came and went and little progress had been made.
“Reflecting on the past 10 years, we learned that solely focusing on individual supply chains and relying on certification will not drive the full-sector transformation needed to end deforestation,” FPC’s 2021 report noted. Transitioning to be “forest positive businesses” (with market value of more than US$2 trillion) would involve a more collaborative approach to their shared supply chains moving forward.
Still, two years in and the progress being announced at Colgate’s headquarters – like a lot of what’s being discussed at Climate Week – is glaringly incremental. Disclosure rates are increasing, but “it’s not all going as fast as we would like,” concedes Kevin Rabinovitch, Mars’s global VP of sustainability and the architect of the FPC’s theory of change.
There’s been a fivefold increase in the number of corporations in the agriculture, forest and land sector that have committed to net-zero, but of the 148 that have, only nine have made strong progress on slowing deforestation to date, according to a UN-commissioned study released in July. As the CEOs of Unilever and Nestlé, both FPC members, wrote in an op-ed this summer, “This lack of progress risks derailing the net zero commitments of over 94% of major food and land use companies.” The two companies now say they’ll make their key supply chains deforestation-free by 2025 by embracing nature-positive supply chains and have called for the acceleration of forest finance ahead of the COP27 summit in November.
A lack of meaningful progress hasn’t created a great deal of trust amongst our valued stakeholders.
–Grant Reid CEO of Mars Inc.
Glenn Hurowitz, the CEO of forestry advocacy group Mighty Earth, is holding out hope. “From what I’ve seen, the single greatest action at protecting forests is private sector action.” He points to a 90% decrease in palm industry deforestation after years of public pressure on brands pushed them to take deforestation seriously. “It’s a gigatonne-scale climate victory.” (Not that the palm industry is clear of scandal: Nestlé just dropped a major Indonesian palm oil supplier accused of land-rights and environmental abuses in late September.)
“The frustrating thing for us, why we think we still saw 25 million acres of deforestation last year,” says Hurowitz, “[is that] in the cocoa and meat industry that approach has not been used.” He calls the lost opportunity tragic and unnecessary. “There are 1.6 billion acres of previously deforested land where they could channel agricultural development across South America alone.”
In the lead-up to November’s climate summit, calls for an emergency global movement to reverse forest loss are mounting. COP26 president Alok Sharma has been gathering support for the launch of the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership at COP27, to “scale up action to protect, conserve and restore the world’s forests while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation.”
Across town from Colgate headquarters, a panel organized by the newly formed Seed to Forest Alliance that is stacked with tree planters and seed savers is working on just that. Rather than talking about slowing deforestation, they’re discussing best practices to accelerate reforestation and an inclusive forest-based economy, starting with ensuring that there are enough native seeds on hand to plant a trillion trees. “We’re trying to transition our economy from extraction and exploitation to restoration and regeneration,” says Shyla Raghav, co-founder of a new venture incubated by media giant Time, called CO2.com, focused on accelerating climate investment.
“Not only is it about [healing] our relationship to the land [and] nature, it’s also a really incredible climate solution,” says Raghav. “There’s really no path to net-zero without rapidly scaling up nature’s contribution, both through conservation and restoration.”
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