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The New York Declaration on Forests: An agreement to continue deforestation until 2030

By signing the New York Declaration on Forests, which was announced this week during the UN Climate Summit, governments, companies, civil society and indigenous organisations have endorsed “a global timeline to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020, and [will] strive to end it by 2030”.

The declaration has been fêted in the media. The Independent asks “Is this the end of the ‘war on trees’?”, Treehugger describes it as an “Ambitious plan to end forest loss”, and the Guardian announces that “UN climate summit pledges to halt the loss of natural forests by 2030”.

Of course we should welcome the declaration. Any commitment to stop deforestation is better than business as usual. And the declaration recognises the importance of indigenous peoples’ rights, with a commitment to:

Strengthen forest governance, transparency and the rule of law, while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, especially those pertaining to their lands and resources.

Non-legally binding

But the Declaration is “a non-legally binding political declaration”. It’s voluntary. There are no sanctions for countries or companies that are in breach of the declaration.

Greenpeace did not sign on. In a press release, Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director, explains why:

“We need strong laws to protect forests and people, as well as better enforcement of existing laws. The New York Declaration is missing ambitious targets and tangible actions. Halting the global loss of natural forests by 2030 and eliminating deforestation from agricultural commodities by 2020 at the latest would mean that years of continued forest clearance still lie ahead of us. While we are celebrating announcements on paper today, forests and forest peoples are facing imminent threats that must be averted if we want the Declaration to become reality.”

From Davos to New York, via Washington

A Washington-based consulting firm, Climate Advisers, wrote the draft of the New York Declaration. The Guardian describes the firm as “the consultancy which worked to get the deal”, suggesting that Climate Advisers’ work didn’t end with writing a draft.

Climate Advisers is currently working on a Norwegian aid-funded project called “Creating demand for REDD+”. Nigel Purvis, head honcho at Climate Advisers, gets paid US$639 per hour for his work promoting REDD.

According to a Q&A document on UN-REDD’s website, the “declaration grew out of a dialogue at the World Economic Forum in January 2014”.

In a report to Norad, Climate Advisers describes its role in developing the declaration from the beginning:

CA supported the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) efforts to catalyze business support for REDD+ at its 2014 Davos meeting, and also supported the Office of the UN Secretary General by developing strategies and plans for elevating REDD at the 2014 climate summit in New York City.

Here’s Purvis speaking on a UN Webcast in June 2014:

“I hope that when world leaders gather for the UN Summit in September that they commit to stopping deforestation. Halting deforestation is something that we can do today, at relatively low cost in ways that benefit local communities, that are supported by indigenous peoples around the world and where the business sector is responding to consumer interests by making sure that the food we eat, the products that we consume, don’t contribute to harmful deforestation. This is a climate solution that makes sense, that we can pursue now.”

But world leaders didn’t commit to stopping deforestation “today”, which Purvis seems confident “we” can do. By signing on to the New York Declaration, they signed on to “strive” to stop deforestation. In 16 years time.

Weak deforestation targets

Charles McNeill of the UN Development Programme promoted the New York Declaration on Forests in a series of emails before the launch at the UN Climate Summit. In an email dated 19 September 2014, he described the declaration as the “first global timeline to slow, end and reverse natural forest loss”.

As McNeill knows, there are other UN processes that include forests. Such as the Aichi Biodiversity targets and the Sustainable Development Goals.

In October 2010, at a meeting in Nagoya, Japan, the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity agreed to the Aichi Biodiversity targets. Two of these targets mention forests:

Target 5
By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation is significantly reduced.

Target 7
By 2020 areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity.

These goals are stronger than the New York Declaration on Forest’s targets.

The New York Declaration includes this commitment:

Include ambitious, quantitative forest conservation and restoration targets for 2030 in the post-2015 global development framework, as part of new international sustainable development goals.

In fact, this is already happening, but with a target of stopping deforestation by 2020.

On 10 September 2014, the UN General Assembly decided that the proposal of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals “shall be the main basis for integrating sustainable development goals into the post-2015 development agenda”.

Goal 15 of the Open Working Group’s proposal refers to forests, and paragraph 15.2 gives a timeline to stop deforestation:

15.2 By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and increase afforestation and reforestation by [x] per cent globally

Brazil left out

Brazil did not sign on to the New York Declaration on Forests. Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s Environment Minister, told Associated Press that,

“Unfortunately, we were not consulted. But I think that it’s impossible to think that you can have a global forest initiative without Brazil on board. It doesn’t make sense.”

UNDP’s Charles McNeill commented that,

“There was no desire to exclude Brazil. They are the most important country in this area. An effort that involves Brazil is much more powerful and impactful than one that doesn’t.”

Teixeira said that Brazil was “not invited to be engaged in the preparation process”. Instead, Brazil was handed a copy of the completed text.

So, the idea of the New York Declaration on Forests came from a meeting of the world’s highly privileged elites in Davos. The draft came from Climate Advisers, a Washington-based consulting firm headed by the man who “spearheaded” the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. The targets for stopping deforestation are weak. And somehow everyone forgot to ask Brazil. Whoops.

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  1. This is a great article that needs more attention as too many big green groups are showing the New York pledge as an overwhelmingly positive influence for the future of forests. The decision to halt deforestation by 2030 alone should be an indicator to people that this just another green-wash scheme that won’t have any teeth on the ground.

  2. While it is certainly commendable to use e.g. a “climate” summit to promote the protection of rain forests or halt deforestation, it should not camouflage the real culprits which are not climate change, aka global warming, but direct human manipulations like cutting down trees. While it is rather difficult to track carbon dioxide via satellite it is very easy to put a stop to illegal logging via satellite surveillance – if the states really wanted to. I have a suspicion that the real perpetrators are actually buying time by taking the “tree huggers” on a large detour that does nothing to save the immediate next tree, where a policeman, a ranger, in the right place at the right time would!

  3. FERN’s Forest Watch 197, October 2014 includes this about the New York Declaration on Forests:

    FERN declined to sign the New York Declaration on Forests because of “concerns” over its failure to respect forest peoples’ rights and tackle the need to curb consumption in the global North. As pointed out by Redd Monitor, the Declaration included few if any new commitments and in some cases was a step back

    The Declaration, which pledged to halve forest loss by 2020 and end emissions through deforestation by 2030, was one of the key announcements at Ban Ki-moon’s UN Climate Summit on September 23, 2014, and was signed by more than 150 governments, companies and NGOs.

    FERN was invited to sign the declaration, but declined in a letter to the United Nations Development Programme, which was reported on by the BBC and others. Forests and climate campaigner Hannah Mowat said that, while FERN appreciated that the declaration kept forests high on the political agenda, it “made no concrete commitment” to reduce the consumption of forest risk commodities such as palm oil, soya and beef in the global North. She also said that “without the recognition of the human rights of forest-dependent communities and indigenous peoples to land, territories and resources, any solution to halt deforestation is not sustainable.”

    The pledges on climate made at the summit also came in for some sharp criticism, in particular from Pablo Salón, Bolivia’s former UN ambassador and lead climate negotiator. Salón’s analysis underlined the failure to address the critical issue of the greenhouse gas emissions gap for this decade at the summit. “Real solutions are not going to come from the UN, heads of state, corporations or the World Bank,” he wrote. “We need to make even stronger and more permanent mobilisations with much more clear messages targeting the main polluters, which are the big corporations.”