Countries are failing to meet international targets to stop global forest loss and degradation by 2030, according to a report. It is the first to measure progress since world leaders set the targets last year at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, UK. Preserving forests, which can store carbon and, in some cases, provide local cooling, is a crucial part of a larger strategy to curb global warming.
Tropical forests have big climate benefits beyond carbon storage
The analysis, called the Forest Declaration Assessment, shows that the rate of global deforestation slowed by 6.3% in 2021, compared with the baseline average for 2018–20. But this “modest” progress falls short of the annual 10% cut needed to end deforestation by 2030, says Erin Matson, a consultant at Climate Focus, an advisory company headquartered in Amsterdam, and author of the assessment, published on 24 October.
“It’s a good start, but we are not on track,” Matson said at a press briefing, although she cautioned that the assessment looks at only one year’s worth of data. A clearer picture of deforestation trends will emerge in successive years, she added.
The assessment, which was carried out by a number of civil-society and research groups, including the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington DC, comes as nations gear up for the next big climate summit (COP27), to be held in November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Scientists agree that in order to limit global warming to 1.5–2 °C above preindustrial levels — a threshold beyond which Earth’s climate will become profoundly disrupted — deforestation must end.
Tropical forests are key
To track deforestation over the past year, the groups analysed indicators such as changes in forest canopy, as measured by satellite data, and the forest landscape integrity index, which is a measure of the ecological health of forests. The slow progress they found is mainly attributable to a few tropical countries where deforestation is highest (see ‘Progress report’). Among them is Brazil — the world’s largest contributor to tree loss — which saw a 3% rise in the rate of deforestation in 2021, compared with the baseline years. Rates also rose in heavy deforesters Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by 6% and 3%, respectively, over the same period.
The loss of tropical forests, in particular, is worrisome because a growing body of research shows that besides sequestering carbon, these forests can physically cool nearby areas by creating clouds, humidifying the air and releasing certain cooling molecules. Keeping tropical forests standing provides a massive boost to global cooling that current policies ignore, says a report, “Not Just Carbon”, released alongside the Forest Declaration Assessment.
A region made up of tropical countries in Asia is the only one on track to halt deforestation by 2030, according to the assessment (see ‘Movement towards goal’). The region cut the rate at which it lost humid, old-growth forests last year by 20% from the 2018–20 baseline, mostly thanks to large strides made by Indonesia — normally one of the world’s largest contributors to deforestation — where the loss of old-growth forests fell by 25% in 2021 compared with the previous year.
“The progress we see is driven by exceptional results in some countries,” Matson said.
Efforts by the government and corporations in Indonesia to address the environmental harms of palm-oil production were key to progress, the assessment says. For example, as of 2020, more than 80% of palm-oil refiners had promised not to cut down or degrade any more forests. And in 2018, the Indonesian government imposed a moratorium on new palm-oil plantations. But the ban expired last year, raising concerns that progress might eventually be reversed.
Global demand for commodities such as beef, fossil fuels and timber drive much of the forest loss that occurs today, as industry seeks to clear trees for new pastures and resource extraction. Matson said that many governments haven’t introduced reforms, such as protected-area regulations or fiscal incentives to encourage the private sector to safeguard forests, and that this is stalling progress.
“Stronger mandatory action is needed,” she said.
How much can forests fight climate change?
In particular, nations are lagging behind in terms of fiscal support for forest protection and restoration. On the basis of previous assessments, the report estimates that forest conservation efforts require somewhere between US$45 billion and $460 billion per year if nations are to meet the 2030 goal. At present, commitments average less than 1% of what is needed per year, it concludes.
Matson said that nations need to improve transparency on financing by setting interim milestones and publicly reporting progress. Michael Wolosin, a climate-solutions adviser at Conservation International, a non-profit environmental organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, would like to see donor countries recommit to their forest finance pledges at COP27 this year.
However, Constance McDermott, an environmental-change researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, cautions against focusing too much on “estimates of forest cover change and dollars spent”. Social equity for Indigenous people and those in local communities should be part of discussions relating to deforestation, but is mostly missing, she says. These communities are the best forest stewards, and more effort is needed to support them by strengthening land rights and addressing land-use challenges that they identify, she says.
Otherwise, McDermott warns that “global efforts to stop deforestation are more than likely to reinforce global, national and local inequalities”.
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