COP26 promise to ‘end deforestation by 2030’ is not worth the pulp and paper it’s written on
by Bernice Maxton-Lee
World leaders at the climate meeting in Glasgow are celebrating their agreement to stop deforestation by 2030, specifically naming Indonesia, Brazil, and Democratic Republic of Congo. The pledge is being hailed as the meeting’s first major deal, but in reality it is little more than a cheap, gaudy toy. If it weren’t so pathetic, it would almost be funny that this is being suggested as something new, clever, or remotely useful.
The idea of protecting forests as ‘the lungs of our planet‘ is old wine in new bottles. Indonesia’s former President Yudhoyono invoked the term back in 2012. Forest conservation has been a favourite of climate discussions for decades, as an easy, low resistance way of tackling climate change. It looks like a no-brainer: trees suck up carbon emissions and do lots of other things humans find useful, so why not kill two birds with one stone, and keep the trees standing? But we know perfectly well too, that for 20 years there has been no reduction in deforestation or emissions. In fact, both have risen.
An Executive Director at Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator, which produced a report to COP26 promoting the Amazon rainforest as an important building block in a climate agreement, said this deal is ‘a really important step’ to keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C, but that ‘the devil is in the detail’. Actually, the devil is in the whole idea in the first place, but economists and finance evangelists will now have their fun with discussions about how best to put a financial value on the carbon content of forests, and the biodiversity and ecosystem services they supposedly provide to the global economy. None of this is new, and none of it has even begun to make a dent in the real source of greenhouse gas emissions, despite years of refinement and practice.
In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol presented forest conservation as a magic bullet for mitigating climate change. Since then, billions of US dollars have been spent in rainforest countries on legal reforms, governance improvement, and transparency drives (all of which, by an amazing coincidence, are keystones of neoliberal free market ideology). Certification programmes (of which there are almost too many to count) have sprung up to encourage responsible consumer engagement in palm oil, soy, and timber markets (regulated by the very companies that produce those goods), conservation enclosures have been funded by big energy companies (who naturally support any alternative to a restriction on fossil fuel use), and national payments to rainforest countries have been promised (and sometimes made) by apparently beneficent wealthy industrialised countries like Norway (much of whose wealth comes from fossil fuel extraction and export). Yet despite all these activities (we might even say because of them) global emissions have risen at terrifying rates, and forest cover has fallen.
Deforestation is not the most important source of global long-term emissions, and nor are they now the most reliable carbon sinks. As the climate warms, forests are now turning from carbon sinks to carbon contributors. Their ability to absorb carbon is fading, thanks to greater heat and water stress. Many are also dying. If we actually want to prevent runaway climate change, there is a much quicker and more effective way to reduce emissions, which is to stop burning fossil fuels.
But we shouldn’t expect any new ideas when the old ones still have such appeal to an audience that doesn’t want fundamental change. The deforestation agenda is, in fact, a massive smoke screen, designed to detract attention from the real emissions problem.
The real cause of the emissions driving climate change is the fossil fuel combusting global economic engine. Global climate change is caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, and most greenhouse gas emissions come overwhelmingly from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes like cement production and chemical and metal processes. The vast majority of these have historically been emitted by countries in the Global North since the Industrial Revolution, which makes US President Joe Biden’s rant against China at the opening of COP26 especially nauseating. The rise in emissions from developing and later developed countries like India and China follows the model of industrialisation, economic growth through large-scale production, and compulsory participation in global trade prescribed by the Global North. But that essential context is omitted from the hypocritical finger-wagging lectures of rich countries.
Pretending to save the world’s rainforests is simply a more cost effective policy for the Global North, and an easier concept for their economists, businesses, politicians, and voters to accept, because it effectively means they have to do nothing. This way, rich countries get to maintain their status quo, and dictate the terms of engagement, while shirking the consequences of their historical and continuing actions.
Bernice Maxton-Lee is co-author of A Chicken Can’t Lay a Duck Egg: How Covid-19 can solve the climate crisis and author of Forest Conservation and Sustainability in Indonesia: A Political Economy Study of International Governance Failure.