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Zero-deforestation pledges need help, support to meet targets, new study finds

  • The study’s authors reviewed previous research to understand the impact that zero-deforestation commitments are having on reducing the loss of forests.
  • Nearly 450 companies made 760 such commitments by early 2017.
  • These pledges can reduce deforestation in some cases, but in others, they weren’t effective or had unintended effects, according to the study.
  • The authors advocate for increased public-private communication, more support for smallholders, and complementary laws that support these pledges.

It’s become a trend for big corporations to pledge that their products won’t cause any more deforestation. And while many experts believe in the potential of these “zero-deforestation” commitments to slow or stop deforestation, a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that a number of challenges hamstring the efforts.

“These companies stand poised to break the link between commodity production and deforestation,” co-author and environmental scientist Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said in a statement. “To do that, more immediate action is needed to demonstrate commitment to change and to clear the haze surrounding these efforts.”

Gibbs and a team of colleagues from nearly a dozen other institutions around the world looked at commitments to cut deforestation from company supply chains in recent years. Nearly 450 corporations made 760 such promises by March of 2017. Yet the early evidence seems to indicate that they may not be making as much of a difference as hoped, so the researchers set out to figure out why.

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The team examined the different approaches, looking at whether they are announced by a single company on its own or as part of a group, for example, as well as whether they define a set of discrete actions aimed at tackling the deforestation in their supply chains, or they merely lay out a set of targets.

In the latter case, the commitment may predominantly serve a public relations function, leading consumers to believe that the company is focused on sustainability even though it may be falling short of that standard.

“The vague nature of many company commitments may lead to greenwashing, defined as poor environmental performance accompanied by positive communication about environmental performance,” the authors write.

Cattle ranching on a deforested plain in Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

According to the study, one of the problems with zero-deforestation pledges is that they haven’t been around for very long, so it’s difficult to figure out if they’re making a difference in many cases. Where it was possible, however, the researchers reviewed scientific studies on the effectiveness of pledges to stanch deforestation, coming up with mixed results.

In Colombia, for example, coffee farms that had obtained “eco-certification” boosted their level of tree cover compared to uncertified farms, based on one study referenced by the authors. In contrast, other studies showed that certification by the timber-certification organization Forest Stewardship Council wasn’t very effective at slashing deforestation in Cameroon, Mexico or Peru, but it did make a difference in Chile and Indonesia.

Large-scale moves to reduce deforestation have had important impacts, as became apparent after Brazil established a moratorium on clearing new land for soybean agriculture in 2004. Similarly, beef companies operating in Brazil agreed to a no-deforestation agreement in 2009. Scientists credit enforcement of the bans with aiding the country in substantially cutting deforestation through 2012.

But unintended effects appear to have accompanied these benefits. The soy moratorium may have pushed farmers to clear land for other uses, such as cattle ranching. And ranchers appear to have found new areas to raise their cattle without such stringent restrictions on deforestation, like the Gran Chaco in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Ecologists worry that the Chaco’s unique, yet poorly understood, ecosystem is vanishing more rapidly than anywhere else on Earth — in part because of surging agriculture activity.

Deforestation in Australia’s Toolangi State Forest. Photo by crustmania/Flickr, courtesy of Stanford University.

These “leakages” can result from the problems that these policies and commitments create for small-scale producers. Often they can’t cope with the expense of meeting the new standard. The authors suggest that governments can help included smallholders in these initiatives by covering the added costs of compliance.

More broadly, officials can ensure public support of these private initiatives by passing “supportive” laws that are in line with zero-deforestation commitments, the authors write. They also call on governments to share information with corporations that will help them meet their goals.

“The time is ripe to increase the scope and impact of zero-deforestation commitments by transnational companies,” Eric Lambin, a geographer at Stanford University, said in the statement. “They align with a growing availability of monitoring data from satellites and other sources as well as a proliferation of national and international public policies aimed at conserving forests to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Banner image of logging in Indonesia by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Lambin, E. F., Gibbs, H. K., Heilmayr, R., Carlson, K. M., Fleck, L. C., Garrett, R. D., … Walker, N. F. (2018). The role of supply-chain initiatives in reducing deforestation. Nature Climate Change.

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