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Worldwide deforestation rising despite bold commitments, report finds

  • In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests set out bold commitments to stem deforestation, cutting it in half by 2020 and ending it entirely by 2030, along with global forest restoration targets.
  • But a new assessment finds that, globally, the loss of forests is on the rise, at rates that are around 40 percent higher than five years ago when the agreement was signed.
  • The report’s authors say that, despite the “sobering” findings, the assessment should serve as a call to action that more needs to be done to address deforestation and forest degradation.

A landmark pledge known as the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) aimed at stopping the loss and degradation of forests is falling short of its goals, according to a new report released Sept. 12.

“Since the NYDF was launched five years ago, deforestation has not only continued — it has actually accelerated,” Charlotte Streck, the director and a co-founder of the think tank Climate Focus, said in a statement. “We must redouble efforts to stop forest loss, especially in primary tropical forests, and restore as many forests as possible before the irreversible impacts of losing trees further threatens our climate and food security.”

The NYDF’s aims were bold: to slash deforestation by half by 2020 and get rid of it altogether by 2030, and to restore 1.5 million square kilometers (579,000 square miles) of degraded forests by 2020 and 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles) in the following decade. It also attracted the support of 200 governments, NGOs, private companies and indigenous organizations who committed to the declaration’s 10 goals.

Deforestation for soy cultivation in Brazil. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

But the report on the progress toward those goals, employing analyses of science, policy and trends over the past five years by Climate Focus and 24 other organizations, reveals that overall the signatories aren’t likely to meet the first set of commitments in 2020. Progress toward the broader goals of the declaration also appear to be off track, with potentially disastrous repercussions for biodiversity, climate change mitigation and the millions of people around the world who depend on forests for their livelihoods, the authors say.

Worldwide deforestation, primarily for large-scale agriculture and timber, is up by 40 percent compared to what it was in 2014 when the signatories inked the declaration. The research shows that the world lost an average of more than 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 square miles) per year between 2014 and 2018. That’s an area larger than either the United Kingdom or the U.S. state of Oregon.

In the past five years, South American countries lost the greatest total area of forests, especially the Amazon countries of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil. The fastest pace of deforestation over the same period was in West and Central Africa, rising by 146 percent since 2014.

The assessment also shows that the companies that signed the NYDF aren’t making headway toward their goals of ending deforestation in the production of the goods they sell.

A logging road and cleared forest in the Central African country of Gabon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

“Many companies have cleaned up their individual supply chains, but this has not translated to reducing forest loss globally,” Justin Adams, the executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance of the World Economic Forum, said in the statement.

The Tropical Forest Alliance collaborates with companies to help them end practices that support deforestation, Adams said in a call with journalists on Sept. 12.

“The last decade has been characterized by lots of individual actions by … companies, governments and NGOs working in their own silos,” he added. “Going forward, we urgently need to unlock the potential of more collaboration to address some of the systemic challenges that we know are driving the continued deforestation.”

Glenn Hurowitz, the CEO of the environmental NGO Mighty Earth, said the private sector had made gains in certain areas.

“These same companies have largely, though imperfectly, enforced their no deforestation policies in the palm oil industry, and the results on the ground show it: deforestation for palm oil has declined from 1 million acres a year to 200,000 acres per year,” Hurowitz said in a statement from Mighty Earth. “This is, of course, still 200,000 acres of deforestation too many, but it also shows real progress is possible.”

With the right policies, countries too can slash their deforestation rates, the authors say. Indonesia, with the world’s third-largest bank of tropical forest, has cut forest loss by around 30 percent since 2014. The authors of the assessment credit those gains to strong government action and banning development on peatlands.

An acacia plantation in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Brazil was once a leader in combating deforestation. Similar to in Indonesia, measures such as a soy moratorium and a strengthened forest code helped bring forest loss rates down sharply between 2004 and 2012.

But now rates of deforestation in the country, which has more tropical forest than anywhere else, have crept back up recently, helping to fuel the fires in the Amazon that have featured prominently in recent media reports.

Brazil has made progress in restoring some 102,000 square kilometers (39,400 square miles) of forest since 2000, Stephanie Roe, a climate researcher at the University of Virginia and one of the assessment’s lead authors, said during the press call. More than 94,000 square kilometers (36,300 square miles) was natural regeneration in the Amazon, Roe added.

But, she said, “Restoring forests can’t offset forest loss. They have to be complementary, and they have to be done at the same time. We urgently have to do both.”

Peatlands burning in Indonesia in 2014 to make way for oil palm. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Craig Hanson, the vice president for food, forest, water and the ocean at the World Resources Institute, said that despite the “sobering” news, he saw the findings of the assessment as a call to intensify efforts to protect forests.

“At five years on, we’re losing the battle,” Hanson said in the press call. “But I would say we shouldn’t give up hope.

“This needs to be energizing to everyone in the community that cares about these issues and to governments and to companies to say, ‘Look, we’ve got to up our game here,” he added.

Banner image of forest cleared for oil palm in Malaysia by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Stephanie Roe is a researcher at the University of Virginia, not the University of Maryland. Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the amount of restoration in Brazil since 2000; the text has been corrected to reflect the most accurate figure. An earlier version of this article also misspelled Craig Hanson’s last name.

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