The Forest Entrepreneurs Indigenous Peoples Project in Peru. © Daniel Martínez / WWF-Peru

The UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow kicked off with a flurry of commitments to end deforestation and ecosystem conversion, and financing for forests. Now it's time to put those words into action.

It has been a momentous week for forests at the UNFCCC COP26, with multiple commitments announced by heads of states, businesses and financial institutions. This week gives us hope that forests are on the forefront of policy agenda, but these announcements need to be followed up by implementation to have tangible benefits on climate, nature and people. 

Pledges from world leaders began the day before the Glasgow Climate Conference kicked off,  starting with an announcement by G20 leaders to plant 1 trillion trees by 2030. This is a welcome pledge but we need more than aspirational goals to halve emissions and tree planting needs to be complemented by actions to halt deforestation, protect forests and sustainably manage them.

I arrived in Glasgow on the same day as the G20 pledge for my first Climate COP, greeted with heavy rain and winds but a warm welcome - socially distanced of course.

The rain quickly made way for sunshine and on ‘Tree’ Tuesday its rays were firmly spotlighting the role of forests as fundamental nature-based solutions to tackle the climate crisis. We had some sense that some big announcements were being prepared but the amassment of pledges for forests was as surprising as it was hard to follow from inside the venue. We had the declaration of 105 (now reported to be closer to 120) world leaders to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, around $19 billion of public and private finance to protect forests, including the Congo Basin and direct funding to Indigenous peoples and local communities to help protect their rights and resolve issues around land tenure. This week also marked the launch of the FACT dialogue roadmap the first time consumer and producer governments have come together to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable land use practices and a pledge from 30 financial institutions to tackle commodity-driven deforestation.

It is certainly true that we have seen many unfulfilled declarations before, most notably the New York Declaration for Forests in 2014, which pledged to halve deforestation by 2020 to which we are hopelessly off track. While there is a sense of deja-vu, five reasons give me some cause for cautious optimism.

  1. The number and breadth of countries involved in the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, over 100, incorporating over 85% of the world’s forests. And pledges from a diverse set of actors, including the private and finance sector.  
  2. There is now significant recognition of the fundamental role of nature-based solutions such as forest protection and restoration in delivering the ambition of the Paris agreement. The climate, nature and development agendas finally seem to be converging.  
  3. The world is watching. It is impossible to walk around this venue, and indeed around Glasgow, without feeling the need for urgency and action  be it the many manifestations on the streets, the letters from young people across the globe printed on the venue's main thoroughfare, or the impassioned speeches during the conference from those on the frontlines of the climate and nature crisis. People will not forgive leaders this time around if pledges go unmet.
  4. The Declaration was backed by significant finance and is a signal that leaders are serious about tackling deforestation and unsustainable land use. It is still a fraction of what’s needed but if spent effectively it can be catalytic and leverage the larger volumes of finance needed for a nature-positive future.  
  5. Lastly, there is increasing political recognition that achieving the ambitious goals of the Paris agreement and post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will not be possible without the recognition of the rights of and the lands of Indigenous people and local communities. The US$1.7 billion of direct funding to Indigenous peoples is a tiny amount of what is needed but a positive step.

So where do we go from here to avoid a further false dawn?

First and foremost, there needs to be urgent implementation of commitments. We are still losing forests at alarming rates. As President Duque of Colombia said on Tuesday, we don’t have to wait until 2030. Quite simply we can't afford to  it will be too late. The great cathedrals of nature, as Boris Johnson described, may have breached tipping points beyond which there is no return and zero chance of limiting heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius. We need commitments and resources to rapidly translate into policies and jurisdictional programmes to tackle deforestation and the drivers of forest loss, particularly in countries which still have standing intact forests. And implementation needs to include both mitigation and adaptation. We know that some of the impacts of climate change are irreversible; we need action that builds our resiliency at the same time that we're trying to reverse and limit climate change. A common, transparent framework for monitoring and verification of commitments will be critical to enable tracking of progress.

Second, we need a rapid scale-up and deployment of finance. Funding needs to hit the ground fast and reach those on the frontline of the nature and climate crisis. Public finance particularly can take many years of complex process to reach the ground, or insufficient proportions of the funding reach those that most needed it — local communities, Indigenous peoples and smallholder farmers. Ensuring the right safeguards are in place and programmes are well designed is clearly important but streamlining processes is key as we simply don't have the luxury of time. Capacity and tools also need to be provided to those on the ground to be better able to navigate these processes and monitor, report and verify the impact of their contributions. 

Third, we need the full and effective inclusion of Indigenous people and local communities in decision making, finance arrangements and implementation. Across many events this week, including one hosted by WWF’s Forest Practice, there has been a strong and consistent message from Indigenous leaders — there needs to be a far greater recognition of their contribution to safeguarding nature, including intact forests, of which a large proportion fall under their stewardship and are in good ecological condition, and much greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in governance systems and decision-making processes. Despite new funding being mobilised towards securing their rights and resolving issues around land tenure, it received a lukewarm reaction from Indigenous leaders with understandable frustration that they hadn't been involved in the design of these commitments, and skepticism that they would have a prominent role in decisions of how the funding was deployed and implemented. This week, we published an important brief, drawing on the perspectives of Indigenous organizations in Latin America, outlining recommendations for more effective and full participation of IPLCs in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). 

Finally, we need to anchor the declarations towards forests and other ecosystems, which happened on the sidelines of formal negotiations, much more strongly into negotiated text. We need to see the role of nature as a climate solution much more strongly embedded in climate negotiations and Tuesday’s forest related pledges translated into time-bound targets in countries’ NDCs.

As the first week of COP26 draws to a close, there are some very positive signs emerging but the hard task of delivering on promises remains. We at WWF will be watching very closely and helping to turn words into action. These challenges are too big for any single actor - no matter how rich or powerful. It’s time for all hands on deck.