COP26: A Fool’s Paradise For Forests?

Zoë Turner

Last week, over 100 world leaders made a pledge to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Backed up with almost £14 billion in funding, this decision, made at the current UN Climate Change Conference, is one of the biggest commitments by world leaders in the fight against climate change so far. But does this pledge mean that results are going to be seen or is it part of a façade to keep climate change activists happy?

Deforestation has been a starring villain in the story of climate change for decades. Plants are a friend to the Earth as they have the ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release oxygen helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Getting rid of forests means CO2 levels increase. In fact, the World Resources Institute has stated that if deforestation was a country it would be the third highest in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions only behind China and the US.

We need forests to prevent a climate catastrophe as they can naturally help the world reduce CO2 emissions. For example, the World Resources Institute estimated in 2018 that 23 percent of the climate mitigation needed over the next decade could be provided by tropical tree cover alone.  Protecting and restoring tropical forests would be the equivalent of reducing the 2014 recorded CO2 total emissions of Russia, The EU and Japan combined showing just how easily forests could be and should be saving us from a global disaster.

The recent commitment to ending deforestation involves countries who contain over 85% of the world’s forests. As countries such as Brazil, Russia, China and Indonesia have agreed to the pledge it is easy to think that world leaders are finally making the huge steps needed to protect the Earth and our futures. When truly opening our eyes to reactions following the agreement and what has actually been promised cracks in this huge announcement become disappointingly clear.

a later report in 2019 found that deforestation was actually accelerating

The 2021 deforestation pledge has already been widely compared against The New York Declaration on Forests from 2014. This decision had 40 governments aim to halve deforestation by 2020 and halt it by 2030, but a later report in 2019 found that deforestation was actually accelerating. The agreement majorly failed and has left many with little hope for the new commitment.

There may be similar problems with the new pledge as there were with the 2014 agreement. There could be issues between donors and recipients such as when Norway suspended funding to an Amazon fund in 2019 due to an argument with Brazil’s president. There could also be issues with policing the pledge.

How funders know their money is helping to achieve what it is supposed to be and whether countries are sticking to their targets is difficult to control. There is a huge question over how this pledge will work without challenging national sovereignty and the privacy of many countries and indigenous people.

It is also possible that world leaders are misguiding the public when it comes to what countries are actually agreeing to do as part of this new deal. Within a week of the commitment Indonesia has showed warning signs that their ideas of the pledge are very different from what we initially think the pledge is stating it will do

In a Facebook post, their Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Baka said that having Indonesia commit to zero deforestation by 2030 was “clearly inappropriate and unfair”. He believes development should remain Indonesia’s top priority and as such their natural resources, such as forests, should be used as they see fit.

Are we being told one thing while individual leaders plan on doing another when they return home?

Indonesia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar has also described the new agreement as “false and misleading” showing that he does not think Indonesia can commit to halting deforestation by 2030. Are we being told one thing while individual leaders plan on doing another when they return home?

It is true though, that more countries are involved in this agreement than there were in the 2014 agreement. Major forested countries like Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are significant new members as well as the huge economic powers of the US and China. Perhaps this agreement has involved more of the people who can directly affect what is happening with Earth’s forests.

Indonesia, as well, may not be such an issue when it comes to the new deal. The country does not disregard deforestation as they are working towards their own targets such as halving their deforestation rate over the next three decades and in 2020 they recorded their lowest rate of deforestation for three decades. Boris Johnson’s spokesperson on Indonesia’s comments has also stated that what they have said “would be consistent with the pledge” as countries have committed to “net deforestation, ensuring that any forest lost is replaced sustainably” – not an end to deforestation.

we need no more empty promises

It is crucial that this time round leaders actually do something. To stop the world warming by the climate devastating 2.7 degrees Celsius we are on track to by 2100 we need no more empty promises. We need forests to grow, thrive, and survive – not to be living in a fool’s paradise. Perhaps this new agreement is just not clear enough yet. It has better foundations than earlier deals and maybe it will become more positive as time goes on and more information on the agreement is released.

Although COP26 highlights that our world leaders are aware of what needs to change to get the climate crisis under control, in the case of deforestation, they may be all talk and no action. Simply saying we will do something and throwing money at the problem does not necessarily bring results.

There is hope that world leaders have learnt from the mistakes that followed 2014 but only time will tell. Are we really comfortable with leaving the limited time we have to reverse human effects on the climate in their hands or should we be doing more to ensure these major deals aren’t empty promises?

Zoë Turner

Featured image courtesy of Matt Palmer via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

This article is part of Impact Nottingham’s COP26 series. For more articles on the conference check out the link here.

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