Asia Pulp and Paper, Cargill and Unilever are among the 34 companies to sign the New York Declaration on Forests this week at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York, which sets a global timeline to halve deforestation of natural forests by 2020, and end it altogether by 2030. (palm oil buyers below)
Some of the signatories have already taken firm action to halt deforestation. In February 2013, APP announced its forest conservation policy and zero deforestation commitment. Although it has not been an easy road over the past 18 months, APP seems to be successfully working to implement the policy. Earlier this year, the company made a further commitment to support the protection and restoration of 2.5 million acres of tropical rainforest landscapes in Indonesia.
Walmart, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg’s and Nestlé are some other notable brands to sign the declaration, which also calls for concrete action to restore hundreds of millions of acres of degraded land.
The world loses more than 32 million acres of forests each year, roughly an area the size of Alabama. This is egregious for several environmental, economic and social reasons.
When we destroy forests, we eliminate one of our most potent natural carbon sequestration technologies. Millions could be spent developing extravagant artificial technologies to sequester carbon, but they wouldn’t come close to the efficiency or elegance of a simple tree. Any school child can tell you why: Trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “exhale” oxygen. But when forests are cleared, burned or degraded, we simultaneously release stored carbon into the atmosphere and eliminate a powerful tool for capturing it. Currently, around 11 percent of global greenhouse gases are emitted through deforestation and other land use. Forests also provide ecosystem services valued at $33 trillion, or twice the U.S.’s annual GDP. These include facilitating food, water and air production, minimizing storm damage and producing a wide range of natural medicines.
In recognition of this fact, the New York declaration calls for the restoration of forests and croplands equal to an area larger than India. This could save between 4.5 billion and 8.8 billion tons of carbon emissions annually by 2030 — the equivalent of taking all the world’s cars off the road for one year. Reducing emissions from deforestation and increasing forest restoration will be critical to limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the U.N. says.
Given that India is not small, achieving this will be as difficult as it is audacious. A good place to start is targeting companies that convert forests for the production of commodities, including soy, palm oil, beef and paper, which accounts for around half of global deforestation. Infrastructure, urban expansion, energy, mining and fuel wood collection also contribute in varying degrees.
Palm oil, a major ingredient in many processed foods, is a particularly vexing source of deforestation; old-growth forests in Indonesia and Malaysia have been ravaged by the rise of palm oil plantations. This is why it is a big deal that Cargill, Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources — the world’s three largest palm oil companies — signed the New York declaration. In 2011, Cargill pledged to have all of the palm oil it sells in Europe, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil by 2015, and all palm oil sold in China, India and elsewhere to be RSPO-certified by 2020.
It is good to see deforestation finally starting to give pause to industries dependent on forest clearing and resource extraction. Although corporate pressures tend to favor short-term profit over long-term viability, they are digging their own proverbial grave in allowing forests to die. Once old growth forests are gone, they are gone because it can take anywhere from a century to several millennia for a forest to grow back, and even then, the biodiversity never may return. And when the forests disappear, so will the businesses dependent on them.
Cleaning up corporate supply chains is easier said than done; most of the world’s forests are in developing countries in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia where corrupt government, war and poverty makes it difficult to implement public policies against deforestation. Illegal deforestation in the form of unsanctioned logging, cattle ranching and subsistence land clearing is a pervasive problem in these regions. More than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for food, water, fuel and medicine, as well as for maintaining traditional cultures and livelihoods. In many developing regions, people rely on subsistence farming and burning fuel wood for energy, which leads to widespread forest destruction.
The New York declaration says it will address this by supporting alternatives to deforestation driven by basic needs in ways that alleviate poverty and promote sustainable and equitable development. This will be achieved by strengthening forest governance, transparency and the rule of law, while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, especially those relating to their lands and resources. Equality and ecology are inexorably linked; we can’t hope to counter climate change unless we also strive to raise all of humanity out of indigence.
Forests embody one of the largest, most cost-effective climate solutions available. Taking action to conserve, sustainably manage and restore forests can not only help minimize the impacts of global warming, but also contribute to economic growth and poverty alleviation. By eliminating clear-cutting and balancing the cutting that does occur with planting enough young trees to replace the older ones, we just might be able to turn the tide against global deforestation and, through it, global warming.