Hovis, Persil, Ginsters, even Mr Kipling’s “exceedingly good” cakes, risk being exceedingly bad for the world’s forests. There’s hardly a domestic product that doesn’t use palm oil. It’s an incredibly useful and profitable natural product, but the relentless drive to plant more and more oil palm trees is devastating some of the most important and biodiversity-rich landscapes in the world.
Every year, vast swathes of South East Asia are blanketed in choking smoke as primary forest is burnt to make way for oil palm plantations. Satellite imagery reveals the immense geographical spread of the toxic smog. Principally emanating from the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan, Sumatra – and now, alarmingly, West Papua – it stretches across Borneo, Singapore, Malaysia and as far as Thailand and Cambodia. The fires raging in 2015 – exacerbated by this year’s El Niño – have been the worst this century.
Astonishingly, recent analysis found that the daily emissions from this year’s Indonesian fires were greater than the daily emissions from the entire US economy.
The incineration of burning peatland forests not only releases enormous quantities of CO2, it also emits a toxic cocktail of carbon monoxide, ammonia and many other chemicals, causing high levels of respiratory illnesses and deaths. The haze from the fires in Indonesia is estimated to kill an average of 110,000 people each year, and up to 300,000 during El Niño events.
Economic losses for 2015 – including to crops and tourism – are already being estimated at tens of billions of dollars, and this will only rise. As well as being crucial to local communities for livelihoods, food and shelter, the importance of our tropical forests in regulating water, soil and climate is hard to overestimate. They are also home to a breathtaking variety of species and organisms, sources of life saving medicines, disease moderation and protection. Such is the richness of biodiversity that, in one recent study of just 19 trees in Panama, 80 per cent of the 1,200 beetle species discovered were previously unknown to science.
The need to succeed where other agreements have failed
It all makes for an incredibly poignant backdrop to this weekend’s Global Landscapes Forum at Paris COP21 and fuels the need for urgent, transparent, binding action. Deforestation is a global challenge that can only be tackled on multiple levels. But previous climate agreements have singularly failed to include global measures to tackle it.
In September 2014, for the first time, world leaders endorsed a timeline to halve global deforestation by 2020 and eliminate it by 2030. Business leaders, too, pledged to free supply chains from deforestation by 2030.
What has become increasingly clear to me, after the creation of the Congo Basin Forest Fund and the Global Legislators’ Forest Initiative on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), is that you cannot begin to protect the forest if you do not protect the people who protect it. That is why the work of those NGOs and other private and public sector bodies for local indigenous community rights is so important.
Those efforts are undermined, however, by the continued financing of destructive projects, by failing sustainability programmes and a lack of corporate awareness or even accountability. One year on from the 2014 talks, less than one per cent of investors, and eight per cent of corporates, have overarching zero deforestation policies.
While half of forests providing wood fibre for paper are certified as sustainably produced, certified sustainable palm oil is only 18 per cent of the global market and soy is a miserable two per cent.
In the past, some certification schemes have been open to abuse as the auditing process has been insufficiently robust. A damning Environmental Investigation Agency report, published last month, found that systems established to monitor the auditing of palm oil certification have “utterly failed”.
Underpinning all this is the woeful response of global legislators in tackling deforestation with the urgency and financial backing it needs. The destruction of the rainforest represents the very antithesis of UN Climate, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development Goals. The cost of continued inaction – to lives, livelihoods and our climate – is incalculable.
Robust protection, restoration and management must be a vital part of any cost effective way to limit global emissions. That’s why it is imperative that Paris COP21 addresses this issue with the urgency that has, to date, been denied.
Here’s what the Global Landscapes Forum needs to consider:
- Current pledges of around £1 billion per year are dwarfed by the annual £135 billion profits from forest destruction. Developed countries must regulate to drive finance of sufficient scale to incentivise the preservation of tropical forests rather than their destruction.
- Explicit reporting by companies needs to show their deforestation footprint, and that of their supply chains.
- The financial sector must be called upon to recognise the role it plays in perpetuating deforestation.
- Support for mechanisms such as REDD+ that recognise the value of standing forests and promote reforestation needs to be accelerated. Sufficient funds through REDD+ will only come if we have an adequate price on carbon. A clear legal structure is also needed for land tenure and the rights that flow from it, such as the framework already pioneered in Mexico.
- The important role of local communities in protecting forests must be recognised.
- That the benefits to people and the richness of biodiversity from tropical forests cannot be recreated once lost.