Professional Year student Luke Sherman discusses the increasing importance of deforestation mitigation and actor responsibilities as a vital area, necessary to stop the climate from reaching its next tipping points.
It is difficult to determine an exact figure, but the majority of experts believe that more than 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest disappear every single day. In the wake of this week’s climate change conference in Bonn, the need for redoubled attention to the devastating loss of forests cannot be overstated. Deforestation in the tropics is estimated to be responsible for 12-15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — meaning that the global land-use sector contributes more to climate change than the many high pollutant states.
Further bolstering the case for stemming forest loss, the land sector has great potential to mitigate further warming, both via avoided emissions and the sequestration of carbon. Indeed, improved land management could supply more than 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to meet the central goal of the Paris Agreement: limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, while striving to contain it to 1.5 degrees.
The clearing of forests does more than merely warm the planet, however — it also leads to the loss or erosion of species, traditional cultures, livelihoods, and more. And given that greater than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for fuel, medicinal plants, food, water, or subsistence income, preventing deforestation would do far more than stabilize the climate – it would also directly improve the lives of one-sixth of the planet’s population, including hundreds of millions of local community members and indigenous peoples.
Fortunately, efforts are underway to address this growing problem, from many different angles and involving many stakeholders. Deforestation has multiple causes: among them, forest fires, climate change, fuel-wood collection, and logging. It can also be caused by multiple actors, including major agricultural and consumer goods companies, farmers and ranchers, governments, and mining endeavors.
Recognizing the need to mitigate, and ultimately end, forest loss, several governments, companies, and civil society groups came together in 2014 to announce the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF). The NYDF issued a non-legally binding political declaration that calls for a halt to natural forest loss by 2030, with a 50-percent reduction by 2020 as a milestone toward its achievement. The declaration currently has more than 190 endorsers, including the governments of the United States and Germany, corporations like Kellogg’s and McDonalds, and non-governmental organizations like Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy.
All these endorsements and movements aside, progress to address forest loss is stillmixed. According to the 2017 New York Declaration on Forests Progress Assessment, coordinated by Climate Focus, the advisory company for which I intern, tropical deforestation does not appear to be slowing. Indeed, the amount of tree cover lost in 2016 was the highest in more than 15 years.
One possible way to mitigate these developments is through the use of clean “cookstoves.” The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization, argues that cookstoves mitigates deforestation by providing an alternative for wood as a source of fuel to the more than two billion people who depend on wood for cooking and/or heating their homes. According to the Alliance, distribution of these clean cookstoves has steadily increased over the past several years, surpassing 20 million in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
An additional sector that requires attention is commercial agriculture. On the whole, it drives up to three-quarters of all forest loss. The production of just four commodities – palm oil, beef, soy, paper and other wood products – causes up to 80 percent of all agricultural-driven deforestation. To stop this tide of forest clearance, further engagement with the cattle, palm oil, soy, and timber companies that have exposure to forest loss is critical.
Some companies, such as Unilever, have taken ambitious steps to divorce deforestation from their supply chain by the end of this decade via pledges to only source from sustainable suppliers. But far too many major industry actors, particularly in the beef and soy sectors, have avoided making any commitments all together. Given the severity of the threat of climate change – and the tipping points that are fast approaching – further delays are inexcusable. Civil society organizations, policymakers, and consumer groups must exert further pressure on these companies to stop destroying the planet’s lungs in their quest for profit. The stability of the climate hangs in the balance.
Luke Sherman is an MPP Candidate at the Hertie School of Governance. He obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Studies and French at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He is currently on Professional Year analyzing matters regarding climate and development.