The UK government is pushing for an ambitious agreement among world leaders at Cop26 to halt and reverse forest loss and degradation, the Guardian can reveal.
Big producers and consumers of deforestation-linked commodities such as soya, cocoa, coffee and palm oil have been asked to commit to halting land clearances, the second largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. A coalition of world leaders is expected to announce the initiative on the second day of the climate summit in Glasgow alongside new funding to protect forests.
Halting the catastrophic decline of nature is a key focus of Cop26, as the destruction of the world’s forests has continued at a relentless pace, with millions of hectares cleared every year. Scientists have warned that large parts of the Amazon rainforest could be on the verge of switching from rainforest to savannah, a tipping point previously thought to be decades away. In 2020, the rate at which the world’s forests were being destroyed increased sharply, according to data from the University of Maryland analysed by Global Forest Watch.
A Downing Street source told the Guardian: “Cop26 puts a heavy emphasis on trees – it’s there as an equal part of ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’ because the prime minister personally believes protecting nature and biodiversity has to be a major part of how we tackle climate change. Alongside reducing carbon emissions from coal and cars, nature-based solutions are a priority. That’s why Cop26 sees the UK presidency pushing for a strong international agreement to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.”
The aim of Cop26 is to put the world on track to fulfil the 2015 Paris agreement, which binds governments to limit global heating to “well below” 2C, with an aspiration to keep within a 1.5C threshold. But the UK hosts, the UN and other leading figures in the talks have conceded that the emissions cuts offered by countries will fall short of those needed to meet the 1.5C goal, and are hoping to secure deals on issues such as forests, coal, transport and other sectors.
Alongside the commitment by world leaders at Cop26, funding announcements for stopping and slowing deforestation from the public and private sector are expected. They could include new funding to protect the Congo basin rainforest, the world’s second largest, and an accompanying pledge to protect indigenous communities around the world, who are seen as the best custodians of the natural world.
The UK’s environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, told a House of Lords committee this week that developing countries urgently needed new funds to keep their forests standing. “We know we need to massively increase finance for nature,” he said. “There are some highly forested, low-deforestation countries we are incredibly grateful to, but we can’t take that for granted, because any change in regime could easily change that equation. Until we find a way to make these living, breathing, healthy forests valuable in the short term for local people, local communities, local economies, there is always going to be a sword hanging over them. So there’s a real challenge.”
Separately, the British and Indonesian governments are overseeing talks for a voluntary roadmap to reduce commodity-driven deforestation through the Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (Fact) dialogue. A previous agreement to end deforestation by 2030, known as the New York declaration on forests, was backed by the EU, the US and forested nations such as Peru, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along with dozens of companies and civil society organisations.
But crucially, many countries – including India, Brazil, Malaysia and China – did not back the agreement, which could reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of taking all of the world’s cars off the road.
The Fact dialogue includes many major consumer and producer countries of deforestation-linked commodities negotiating on four separate themes to resolve deforestation: transparency and traceability, trade and markets, smallholder farmers, research and innovation. The Guardian understands ministers from countries involved in the dialogue are still negotiating the roadmap that will be published at Cop26.
Frances Seymour, a forest and governance expert at the World Resources Institute, said Cop26 commitments needed to reflect enhanced ambition as several countries had previously made deforestation pledges they had not met.
“The United Kingdom’s use of the Cop presidency to spotlight the urgency of ending deforestation is welcome and necessary, yet the share of political attention and finance that forests receive compared with their mitigation potential is still off by roughly an order of magnitude. And that’s before you take into account the impacts of forest loss on agricultural productivity and public health, and on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous and local communities,” she said.
“Getting deforestation out of commodity supply chains is a shared responsibility between consumer and producer countries, so constructive dialogue is needed to agree on who needs to do what. But dialogue can’t be an excuse for delay or a substitute for action.”
The UK hosts will be assisted by other countries with a strong interest in forests and nature, and by the Prince of Wales, who has a record of bringing countries together to combat deforestation and destruction, and will be attending some Cop26-related events. Conservation, biodiversity and forestry are expected to be some of his key areas of focus.
Yadvinder Malhi, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford, said slowing deforestation rates was essential to tackle the climate and nature crises but cautioned against a rush to zero deforestation.
“Large-scale production of commodities through agroindustry is the largest contributor to deforestation, and an agreement between major producer and consumer nations and corporations could be a turning point … if followed through by implementation and good governance,” he said.
“But I’m more sceptical of a rapid deforestation target of zero. Zero is a charismatic number, but a significant part of deforestation is messy, involving complex questions of local livelihoods, community engagement and development. I would hope that this is handled with the rights of local communities forefront, something that a one-decade rush to zero is not necessarily the best approach for.”
Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London, said: “Cleaning up supply chains is important, as it is a scandal that some supermarkets are selling meat and dairy produced using animal feed grown on recently deforested land. But ultimately, if demand for commodities from tropical lands is high, then land will probably be deforested to meet it.
“The solution? Countries should adopt declining budgets for the total footprint of agriculture they use. This would steadily reduce the global area of agricultural land needed to feed humanity, and so take the pressure off the world’s remaining forests.”
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