How to ensure the COP26 forest declaration is a success

COP26 featured several major announcements on forests, but critical steps are needed to ensure the Glasgow Declaration does not end up as another empty promise.

Expert comment Updated 21 December 2021 Published 23 November 2021 3 minute READ

The Glasgow conference saw a plethora of announcements on forests with the most high-profile being the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by 133 world leaders who committed to work to halt forest loss and land degradation.

History suggests such commitments are easy to make but much harder to achieve. A similar pledge was made in 2014, under the New York Declaration on Forests, yet forest loss has since accelerated in many parts of the world.

However, there are reasons for some optimism that the Glasgow commitments may fare better. One is the broad scope of the commitments – they encompass finance, land tenure, and forest rights for indigenous peoples and local communities, and trade policies – as well as the range of countries that have signed up. Tackling deforestation will require a multi-faceted and international effort.

Entrenched economic interests

Yet the scale of the task is huge, nine years is not long to halt forest loss and land degradation. The leaders that have made these commitments need to confront entrenched economic interests – within their own governments as well as the business and investment community – and they need to find solutions to tackling the urgent issues of poverty and food insecurity prevalent in too many parts of the world.

How the commitments are to be interpreted will have a huge impact on their outcomes, both for the planet and people

This latter point was made by the Indonesian minister of environment who commented it would be ‘inappropriate and unfair’ if the pledge was interpreted as referring to zero deforestation and, further, that deforestation pledges must not stand in the way of development.

Indeed, the Global Pledge is open to interpretation – and this vagueness is in part what enabled so many countries to sign up. Thus, what is meant by halting forest loss and land degradation is not spelt out, whether the goal is net or zero forest loss, what types of forests are being referred to (whether natural forests only or also plantations) and whether forest degradation is also included within the commitment (either as part of forest loss or of land degradation).

How the commitments are to be interpreted will have a huge impact on their outcomes, both for the planet and people. However, different approaches and solutions will be needed in different countries. Therefore, of more importance than debating what is meant by the various pledges is to ensure that the processes and mechanisms by which countries decide on ways forward are inclusive and fair.

As countries seek to implement these commitments – regardless of how they are interpreted – there will be difficult decisions to be made. The need to protect biodiverse natural forests is an imperative and so is the need to establish secure and resilient livelihoods for rural populations. Pressure on forests is also set to increase in future, with growing demand for natural resources – for timber, agriculture, and minerals.

The argument that forests are standing in the way of development is all too often made by those who do not represent the rural poor

Ironically, greater deployment of green technologies is likely to increase demand for minerals, many of which are mined in forest areas. To return to Indonesia, the country’s commitment to the Glasgow forest pledge has been described as a potential ‘risk’ to the country’s electric battery supply chains if nickel miners come under ‘increased pressure’ to stem deforestation.

Establishing inclusive decision-making processes is of critical importance to finding ways to reconcile these competing demands, and to do so in such a way that does not increase inequity and social conflict. Such processes are needed both between countries and, equally importantly, between the various interest groups within those countries.

The need for collaboration between countries was highlighted in all the pledges made in Glasgow with governments variously committing to ‘work together’, ‘engage collaboratively’ and to have an ‘open and inclusive’ dialogue. This is positive but, to make this a reality, an essential aspect of this collaboration is ensuring the delivery of the promised finance by developed country partners – many of the announcements made on finance are ‘intentions’ only, and require approval by the respective governments.

At the national level, it is essential to ensure decision-making is not dominated by the interests of the politically and economically powerful. The argument that forests are standing in the way of development is all too often made by those who do not represent the rural poor.

To facilitate this, what is needed is to hard-wire inclusive approaches into policies and laws. In addition, reform and capacity strengthening of the institutions overseeing forests are needed in many countries. This is important both for government institutions – so they are able to implement inclusive processes – and for civil society, so they are able to engage effectively.

The European Union (EU) approach to tackling illegal logging in tropical forest countries, implemented over the last couple of decades, offers some valuable lessons for how this could be achieved.

Shifting to inclusive forest governance

A key element of Europe’s approach was to negotiate trade agreements – known as voluntary partnership agreements (VPAs) – with partner countries to support the trade in legal timber. Multi-stakeholder processes were established as a critical component of these, an approach which has facilitated a shift to more inclusive forest governance in many of the partner countries, such as Indonesia.

Shifting to inclusive forest governance contd.

This shift has seen more participatory policymaking and the engagement of civil society in forest monitoring, with significant improvements in government accountability and decision-making.

While the scale of the challenge is daunting, it is important the commitments made at Glasgow are implemented. If the pledge to halt forest loss were successfully implemented it would contribute more than one-sixth of the reduction in GHG emissions needed to keep the world within 1.5 degrees of warming.

Therefore it is imperative that those who have signed up to these commitments on forests see them through. There now needs to be strong and visionary leadership.

This article was originally published by Mongabay.