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An alternative to help companies fulfill zero deforestation pledges

  • Commercial agriculture causes more than two-thirds of deforestation worldwide.
  • Many companies involved in agricultural supply chains have made “zero deforestation” pledges, but these only go so far, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
  • In a new report the group makes the case for “zero deforestation zones” as a way to implement private-sector forest commitments by making them work with, rather than alongside government initiatives, laws, and regulations.

Commercial agriculture causes more than two-thirds of deforestation worldwide, which has led to much scrutiny and numerous calls for change.

Both private industry and governments have made many promises to tackle the problem. But according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), neither is likely to achieve the goal of ending deforestation on its own — especially because public and private stakeholders interested in keeping forests standing rarely work together. So forest experts at EDF have come up with a new approach that helps them do just that.

“Voluntary private sector commitments only get us so far,” EDF’s Chris Meyer, who has expertise in tropical deforestation and climate issues, told Mongabay in an email. Meyer co-wrote a report published in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry making the case for “zero deforestation zones” as a way to implement private-sector forest commitments by making them work with, rather than alongside, REDD+ and other government initiatives, laws, and regulations.

Major industrial agriculture firms like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland have adopted zero deforestation commitments, as have big companies up and down the global commodities supply chain, from growers to makers of consumer products. For instance, the Consumer Goods Forum, a network of over 400 companies, announced a plan in 2010 to work toward zero tropical deforestation by 2020 through responsible sourcing of commodities like beef, soy, palm oil, and pulp and paper.

Forest cleared for palm oil production in Sumatra Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Forest cleared for palm oil production in Sumatra Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Agricultural companies have good reason to be concerned about deforestation. According to the EDF report, deforestation disrupts some of the very ecosystem services that agriculture itself depends on, such as clean water and a stable local climate. Pressure from civil society groups and consumers is another factor spurring companies to adopt zero deforestation commitments.

The hard part has always been making those commitments a reality on the ground. For instance, in the Amazon, companies that control over 90 percent of soy purchases, around half of beef slaughter, and 96 percent of the palm oil trade have committed to zero deforestation policies, the report says. Brazil has witnessed a huge drop in Amazon deforestation over the past decade, thanks in part to those zero deforestation pledges. But there are signs that that progress is in danger of being reversed, illustrating just how difficult it is to truly transform an industry’s relationship to the natural resources it relies on.

To further illustrate the problem with companies’ zero deforestation commitments, Meyer points out that even if some agricultural operations are selling deforestation-free commodities to companies with commitments, neighboring farms could still clear land and sell to buyers without commitments. Therefore, voluntary commitments from the private sector could create “islands of green in a sea of deforestation,” Meyer said.

That’s where the government needs to step in and create public policies to incentivize and enforce forest conservation over large areas. The EDF report makes the case that REDD+ — an initiative officially titled Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation that is being spearheaded by the UN as part of ongoing climate negotiations — could provide support to governments to monitor and enforce forest laws so that everyone has to play by the same rules. This would have the added benefit of minimizing the risk of commodities that are linked to deforestation being “laundered” in companies’ supply chains by indirect suppliers, Meyer said.

Many countries and states already have REDD+ programs, the report notes, meaning they’ve adopted commitments and policies to reduce deforestation across their jurisdictions. Brazil and some of its Amazon states, for instance, have commitments to reduce gross deforestation by 80 percent or more by 2020.

But REDD+ has its limitations too, the biggest being that it “will never be able to generate enough financial support to equal the opportunity cost of deforestation in some areas and for some crops,” according to Meyer. Private sector commitments are needed to send a non-financial signal that there is demand for zero-deforestation commodities, which can enhance the reach of REDD+ and its limited resources, he said.

Yet private and public efforts to stop deforestation have mostly been undertaken as separate initiatives thus far. The result is that, despite all of the private and public sector commitments, some of which have in fact been successful, deforestation is still very much prevalent in corporate supply chains and on public lands. “A complex landscape of government policies, different deforestation drivers, multiple actors with different incentives, and inadequate law enforcement all contribute to the continuing problem,” as the report puts it.

The EDF team argues that creating “zero deforestation zones” by aligning the public and private sectors through a jurisdiction-wide approach would not only increase the effectiveness of these efforts, but reduce the cost of eliminating deforestation from commodity supply chains.

Using the zero deforestation zones approach, companies would preferentially source commodities that comply with their zero deforestation commitments from jurisdictions that have established REDD+ programs and are on the path to zero emissions from deforestation by 2020.

Daniel Nepstad, executive director and senior scientist at the Earth Innovation Institute (EII), a San Francisco-based sustainable development NGO, told Mongabay that he welcomes EDF’s support for a jurisdictional approach to sustainable sourcing. That’s not surprising given that EII floated a very similar proposal in 2013 and is implementing it in Brazil — except they called their approach the “territorial performance system.”

The authors of the EDF report define a “zero deforestation zone” as a region that has achieved “zero net emissions from deforestation.” But Nepstad called EDF’s choice of name a missed opportunity because it implies that landowners will have to meet the very difficult goal of not cutting down any trees, when in fact that is not the case.

In “zero net deforestation” schemes like EDF’s and EII’s, deforestation can be permitted as long as an effort is made to compensate for emissions from deforestation by growing new forests to accumulate an equal amount of carbon. Such targets are often dubbed “zero net emissions” or “forest carbon neutrality.”

Nepstad says terms like those can be more effective than “zero deforestation” because they are considered far more achievable by farmers, a critical group of stakeholders whom Nepstad says are often left out of most tropical deforestation dialogues.

Other experts, however, argue that zero net deforestation is the wrong approach and that commitments should focus squarely on reducing destruction of native forests and on reforesting land that has been cleared in order to maximize carbon storage and wildlife habitat.

The EDF report does not prescribe exactly how to achieve a zero deforestation zone. Instead, that would be decided by key stakeholders in any given country or region, including policy makers, companies, farmers, nongovernmental organizations, indigenous peoples, and other local communities, all of whom would agree on what their particular zero deforestation zone looks like and use REDD+ monitoring and reporting systems to track deforestation.

Private sector commitments “would provide the foundation” for zero deforestation zones by bringing suppliers and agricultural land into compliance with relevant local law, according to the report. Companies would still need to police their supply chains, but preferential sourcing from zero deforestation zones would lower the risk that they’ll inadvertently buy commodities tied to deforestation.

“Private sector commitments are good at targeting the largest commodity drivers of deforestation such as beef, soy, and palm oil because of the market power the buyers yield in key geographies,” Meyer explained. “Enforcement of forest laws is often very weak, so large buyers can be more influential on suppliers’ deforestation practices” than laws and regulations can, he added.

Meanwhile, under EDF’s approach, REDD+ funding would be channeled through the public sector to provide subsidies for sustainable intensification of agriculture, third-party certification, and other initiatives that reduce deforestation pressures. REDD+ funds could also be used to make payments to indigenous peoples and local communities for ecosystem services from lands they steward, and to build programs that facilitate those ecosystem services’ inclusion in supply chains.

All this means that for zero deforestation zones to work, it’s critical that countries support REDD+ in UN climate negotiations and domestic policies, Meyer said. REDD+ is designed to channel funds from developed countries into incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested land and invest in low-carbon development instead. Without the support of both donor and recipient countries, REDD+ will not succeed, and so neither would zero deforestation zones.

Aligning private commitments and REDD+ would not only harmonize private and public signals to producers of agricultural commodities, pressuring them to comply with forest laws and stop clearing their lands, Meyer said — it would also create virtuous feedback loops.

For instance, greater law enforcement in zero deforestation zones would give companies the security they need to make long-term investments. Those investments would in turn bring more funding for the jurisdiction, which could be used for sustainable development programs. REDD+ funds could then be used to help farmers increase their yields, alleviating the need to clear forests for agriculture in the first place.

Meyer and the EDF team are careful to leave room for all parties involved to work collaboratively to build the ideal synthesis of public and private initiatives. As they write in the report, “Through further discussion between stakeholders, ZDZs could be refined to provide a landscape-scale solution that could eliminate deforestation by 2020.”



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