- The COP28 climate summit in Dubai was a mixed bag for forest conservation as climate mitigation.
- The final text included the goals from the 2021 Glasgow Declaration, which calls for halting deforestation by the end of the decade.
- However, the summit failed to make progress on paying countries to keep forests standing to offset emissions elsewhere, which has run into trouble following carbon offset scandals.
- Observers say the COP30 summit in Brazil in 2025 will see a larger push for forest protection.
A special announcement interrupted the “Halting and Reversing Forest Loss by 2030” event during Nature, Land Use and Oceans Day at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai: COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber would make a surprise appearance, the moderator said. But Al Jaber didn’t show up and he didn’t make any major statements that day. Instead, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry gave the closing speech to those at the event.
Al Jaber’s absence seemed to reflect the priorities of the recently concluded COP28, where debate was focused mainly on the elephant in the room: fossil fuels. COP30 in 2025 in Belém, Brazil, the gateway to the Amazon Rainforest, is expected to see far more substantive discussion on the part played by nature, which absorbs about half of humanity’s carbon emissions. Overall, the outcomes for nature and forests were a “mixed bag” at Dubai, observers said.
On the plus side, the summit’s final “global stocktake” text mentioned for the first time the goal from the declaration of COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 of “halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030,” which was an unexpected win for forest advocates. Countries also made several major pledges to combat forest loss. There was also progress toward establishing a United Nations mechanism to facilitate nonmarket investment in keeping trees standing. But the world still isn’t on track to meet any of these goals, and the COP28 text didn’t mention most of the targets set at the biodiversity summit in Montreal last year.
“Different COP presidents want to be known for action on different topics. And so I’m glad that we got [the halting deforestation goal] into the global stocktake text and it wasn’t just kicked down the road to COP30,” said Alexandria Reid of the NGO Global Witness. “But when you consider the global biodiversity framework that was signed last year has a target to halt and reverse all biodiversity loss by 2030, you would have expected, I think, in a way, to see more on the table.”
Beside the Glasgow goal, nature also made a prominent appearance in the other major text to come out of COP28: the work program on the global goal of climate change adaptation. It noted that a future adaptation framework should strengthen efforts toward the preservation and regeneration of nature, and that reducing climate impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity should be one of the targets.
“Although securing space for a specific target on nature is a definite win, we were sorry to see a lack of measurable aims to strive for that,” the Zoological Society of London said in a statement.
Pledges and bans
COP28 started off with several promises of money for rainforest conservation. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged $100 million to Papua New Guinea, $60 million to the Democratic Republic of Congo and $50 million to the Republic of Congo to try and gin up private spending on carbon credits to keep forests intact. The U.K. pledged $38 million to the Amazon Fund, and Norway later committed $50 million.
In addition, a coalition including the U.S., U.K., Japan, Germany and others agreed to boost low-carbon construction, including with sustainable wood. And 21 countries joined the Mangrove Breakthrough, an international pledge signed at COP27 to restore and protect 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of mangroves by 2030. More than 150 banks and corporations said they would ramp up investments in nature-based solutions.
Though these pledges sound impressive, they pale in comparison to the size of the problem: the “finance gap” we need to make up to reverse biodiversity and nature loss by 2030 is $700 billion every year, according to a 2020 report sponsored by The Nature Conservancy. We’re still far short of spending that much, the NGO said.
“Achieving agricultural sustainability was actually the biggest source of financial need,” said Andrew Deutz of TNC.
While spending more on the preservation of nature has proven hard enough, cracking down on the spending that leads to destruction is even trickier. The U.K. took a major step forward on that at COP28 by announcing a long-awaited ban on palm oil, cacao, beef, leather and soy products linked to illegal forest loss.
“Things like deforestation, I think, really connect with the British public,” Steve Barclay, the U.K.’s secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, told Mongabay and other media. “When they go to the major retailers, [they] want to be confident that their pound of consumer spend is not causing greater deforestation.”
Although the U.K. first declared action against deforestation commodities as part of the Environment Act in 2021, it has only listed which products would be regulated after the European Union adopted a similar ban.
But whereas the EU has barred products tied to any deforestation at all, the U.K. ban applies only to those linked to illegal deforestation, which is much harder to determine from satellite imagery or other information. And it doesn’t include maize, coffee and rubber, all common products stemming from areas where people are razing rainforest. Reid from Global Witness added that if the definition of illegality isn’t extended to include human rights abuses, then the legislation won’t help stop land grabs from Indigenous peoples.
“If we’re going to meet this 2030 target to not only halt but reverse deforestation, the law is going to need to go a lot further, a lot faster,” she said.
During COP28, a bipartisan group of legislators in the United States reintroduced a similar piece of legislation called the FOREST Act, which failed to pass in 2021.
“It’s really important that you see the other major economies moving in the same direction because you’re only going to solve the trade issue by like tightening the net on bad actors,” Reid said. “Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a split market.”
Carbon credit controversy
While governments remain the key actors, many advocates have sought to entice private finance to invest in preserving forests through carbon credits. COP28 was supposed to move forward on implementing Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which seeks to do just that. Instead, it dealt a blow to the whole idea.
Negotiators couldn’t agree on the rules of Article 6.2, a mechanism for bilateral deals in which a party would pay for deforestation reductions in another country and count them against its goals for achieving net-zero emissions. They also failed to adopt Article 6.4 to set up a U.N.-regulated market for carbon credits. They did, however, move forward on Article 6.8 to establish “nonmarket approaches” or essentially grants for forest preservation, a decision hailed by more purist forest activists and governments like that of Bolivia.
A major disagreement has been whether “emissions avoidance” should count as one of the carbon “removals” that Article 6 is meant to regulate. If it did, it would essentially would mean that a country could earn money for keeping a forest standing, since those trees remove carbon from the atmosphere. Scandals in the past year have raised doubts, however, about whether these removals can ever be reliably proven.
Still, players like the United States and Arab countries have been arguing that they should be part of the market to generate the most funding for forests. But Kevin Conrad, director of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and a longtime supporter of the REDD+ framework for results-based payments on deforestation, said these players aren’t helping forests.
“They’re stripping out all the regulation that’s necessary to build trust and confidence and creating the system where anything goes,” he said. “And when you have the Wild West and we have anything goes, that’s the voluntary market today where prices have dropped to a buck and nobody understands what they’re buying.”
Erika Lennon, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, said the bickering over Article 6 rules has demonstrated that carbon markets “are not the solution we need.”
“What is obviously needed is a rapid, full, fast, fair, funded phase-out of all fossil fuels without loopholes to allow big polluters to keep emitting while theoretically offsetting their emissions with actions elsewhere,” she said.
Tropical Forests Forever
With the controversy over carbon credits only growing, Brazil announced a different approach at COP28 called Tropical Forests Forever, which would essentially create a $250 billion trust fund for forest conservation. Critics say that even if the sale of a carbon credit keeps one patch of forest from being cut down, deforestation will often simply shift to another patch that isn’t protected. Under this new initiative, governments and corporations would donate to a fund that would pay countries a dividend based on how many hectares of primary forest they keep standing. If a country lets a hectare be cut down, its payments from the fund would be reduced by a factor of 100.
“This is the kind of scale nature needs,” said Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of the NGO Mighty Earth.
Brazil said it would have Tropical Forests Forever up and running by COP30 in Belém. Some have questioned, however, if that timeline is realistic, or whether nations and companies will be eager to volunteer money for a scheme that can’t be claimed against a net-zero pledge.
“The Amazon Fund has an excellent reputation, and the Brazilian proposal for a new global forest facility is a welcome breath of fresh air,” said Ruth Davis, a former adviser to the COP26 presidency on food and nature. “But this doesn’t mean that they have magically solved the problem of why investors would put money into a fund that doesn’t promise an offsetting claim or how best to ensure that any money paid out rewards national governments and benefits local communities.”
Banner image: It was noted at COP28 that a future adaptation framework should strengthen efforts toward the preservation and regeneration of nature, and that reducing climate impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity should be one of the targets. Image by Lauren Hedges via Pexels (Public domain).