Opinion: The rich-country roadmap to halting deforestation, enabling development and meeting climate commitments

A boat travels through a canal in Kalimantan, Indonesia, where forests were destroyed by poor farming practices, illegal logging and fires, resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions. Photo by: Josh Estey / DFAT / CC BY

An area of tropical forest the size of Austria is cleared every year, releasing into the atmosphere vast amounts of carbon previously locked up in trees and soils. The good news is that dozens of developing countries have committed to reduce deforestation as part of their contributions to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. But as described in our new book, Why Forests? Why Now?, those efforts need support from rich countries to align incentives for governments and private companies alike to turn away from deforestation-as-usual.

The major cause of tropical deforestation is the ever-growing demand for globally traded commodities such as soybeans, palm oil, beef and wood products from fast-growing timber plantations. Starting in 2004, Brazil demonstrated how a mix of public policy measures and market-based incentives could be effective in changing the behavior of land-users: enhanced law enforcement, establishment of protected areas, and making access to credit and markets dependent on conserving forests all contributed to a dramatic decrease in deforestation in the Amazon.

Such measures can be politically difficult to initiate and sustain, because they require governments to challenge vested interests that profit from unfettered access to forest resources, and companies to disrupt commodity supply chains that have thrived on an expanding agricultural frontier. And although success can only be achieved through political will and leadership in developing countries themselves, here are four ways that high-income countries can help.

1. Provide market signals that privilege imports of “forest-risk” commodities that are legally and sustainably produced.

Rich countries are significant consumers of the commodities that drive deforestation, which means they can influence production practices through trade and purchasing policies. Legislative actions such as the European Union Timber Regulation and the Lacey Act in the United States have banned the import of illegally logged timber and catalyzed efforts to control forest-related crime in producer countries such as Indonesia. Public procurement policies — such as the U.K.’s commitments to buy only timber and palm oil that has been certified as sustainably produced — can provide incentives for producers to improve their practices to meet international standards.

Consumer country governments can also support private sector initiatives to remove deforestation from global supply chains. For example, through the Amsterdam Declaration, a number of EU member states have endorsed a private sector driven “Commitment to support 100% Sustainable Palm Oil in Europe.”

2. End perverse subsidies for commodities that drive deforestation.

A share of global demand for forest-risk commodities is artificially created by perverse policies that encourage their consumption, raise prices, and drive increased production. For example, the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive — which set a 10 percent target for the portion of transport fuels to be supplied by renewable sources by 2020 — resulted in a sharp increase in imports of palm oil for use as a feedstock for biodiesel, as well as a substitute for other food oils diverted to produce fuel.

Far from helping to protect the climate, the policy generated additional emissions, as carbon-rich forests and peatlands in Southeast Asia have been converted to oil palm plantations to service the new market it created. In response to this concern, in March 2017, the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety endorsed a proposal to phase out biodiesel based on palm oil by 2020.

3. Provide global public goods that enable better forest management.

Another way that rich countries can be part of the solution is by supplying tools that empower developing countries to monitor forest cover change and enforce the law. For example, the satellite imagery made available by NASA has revolutionized forest monitoring by enabling the detection of deforestation incidents in areas as small as 30 square meters every few days. Earth observation programs and associated research need to be sheltered from budget cuts to climate programs proposed by the Trump administration.

4. Provide performance-based finance for reducing emissions from deforestation.

Potentially the most powerful way that rich countries can assist developing countries in their efforts to reduce deforestation is through results-based finance. The Paris Agreement singles out forest conservation as an area particularly important for international cooperation, and endorses a framework called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+.

Under REDD+, rich countries are encouraged to pay developing countries for their performance in reducing forest emissions: for every ton of carbon emissions avoided due to forest conservation beyond an agreed baseline, developing countries receive a per-unit payment. And the cost of reducing forest-based emissions is much lower than other emissions abatement options, allowing rich countries to take on more aggressive targets by adding cheaper REDD+ reductions achieved in partnership with developing countries on top of their domestic commitments.

Up to now, pledges of REDD+ finance from rich countries have averaged only about $1 billion per year — spread across the more than 50 developing countries that have signed up to participate — far from enough to constitute a meaningful incentive in countries struggling to balance short-term political and economic imperatives with longer term interests in sustainability.

We all have a large stake in tipping that balance toward forest conservation, as everyone benefits from a more stable climate. Rich countries should use the tools at their disposal to help.

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About the author

  • Oped francesseymour ed

    Frances Seymour

    Frances Seymour is a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, and lead author of the book, "Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change."

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