In 2018, the world lost an area of primary rainforest the size of Belgium. The latest figures from Global Forest Watch show that, despite a fall from the record levels reached in 2016, the rate of deforestation remains significantly higher than it was a decade ago.
This isn’t the story we were meant to be telling. Over the past decade, hundreds of companies have made high-profile commitments to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. Governments pledged to halt deforestation and reverse land degradation under the Aichi Targets, New York Declaration on Forests and Sustainable Development Goals.
Yet deforestation and habitat conversion driven by commodities including beef, palm oil, soy and cocoa continues unabated.
This week, governments, businesses and NGOs are coming together in Bogota, Colombia for the annual meeting of the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) 2020 – the global public-private partnership supporting action on deforestation-free supply chains. It’s a good moment to take stock of where we are, and what needs to be done next.
The most urgent priority is for companies to redouble their efforts to meet their commitments. Every year we haven’t ended deforestation will leave the world all the more impoverished by the time we do ultimately bend the curve on forests. And the loss of natural habitats directly affects the millions of people living in the landscapes where commodities are produced, including farmers – from land degradation reducing productivity to less rainfall and water for drinking and irrigation.
Our understanding of what constitutes a robust deforestation-free policy and a credible implementation pathway is much clearer today than it was five years ago, thanks to the emergence of new tools and initiatives.
Putting commitments into action: A 5-step pathway
As the clock ticks down to 2020, it’s clear that most companies aren’t going to meet their deadline for achieving deforestation- and conversion-free supply chains. But there needs to be radical transparency across supply chains, whether there’s progress or not. Companies should publicly report on the progress they have made to date, set clear, robust targets for the coming years up to 2030, and be explicit about how they are going to deliver them. Year-by-year targets and detailed reporting on progress within all supply chain segments that implicate forests can help to focus these efforts.
Secondly, companies should make use of the Accountability Framework, which offers commonly agreed definitions on what constitutes deforestation, conversion and other key terms, as well as a set of principles and practical guidance around setting, delivering and monitoring progress on their commitments. This still includes an important role for credible certification standards such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), and there are other tools available for use if companies struggle to locate certified supplies.
In addition, companies can align their deforestation- and conversion-free commitments with the Science-Based Targets initiative. The initiative supports companies to set and deliver targets in line with what the latest climate science says is required to limit global warming to 1.5– 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Thirdly, it is critical that companies take a people-centred approach to fulfilling their deforestation- and conversion-free commitments. As well as respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities and workers, companies should strive to include smallholders within responsible supply chains. This can present extra challenges, as smallholders may find it harder than larger producers to comply with company policies, but is vital for conserving ecosystems, strengthening livelihoods, improving productivity and securing long-term commodity supplies. Here too the Accountability Framework provides useful guidance.
Fourth, companies that are really serious about helping to end deforestation and habitat conversion need to look beyond their immediate supply chains and map landscapes, supply chains as well as work with partners on the ground to pursue other complementary strategies. These might include supporting landscape and/or jurisdictional initiatives or forest landscape restoration programmes in the regions that they source from, or sector-wide sustainability initiatives. Among the many examples are the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, a partnership between 33 cocoa companies and the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire; commitment by over 100 global companies to work together to halt deforestation and native vegetation loss in the Cerrado; and the Malaysian state of Sabah’s aim of having a jurisdictional approach to getting 100% RSPO-certified palm oil by 2025.
Finally, companies can use their influence to encourage governments to adopt stronger sustainability and land-use policies, creating an enabling environment for ending deforestation and conversion across whole territories. And just as private sector support was critical in securing the Paris Climate Agreement, companies’ deforestation commitments will have a vital role to play in securing a New Deal for Nature and People at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Beijing in 2020.
Will companies have achieved deforestation-free supply chains by then? In most cases, sadly not. But do we need to see their progress toward their commitment? Absolutely. And we have the tools available to finally move towards being deforestation-free and safeguarding our priceless forests and other natural habitats by 2030. There’s no reason we can’t.