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Hate to say I told you so, but the New York Forest Declaration has utterly failed to stop deforestation

Launched five years ago, the New York Declaration on Forests included a commitment “to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020, and strive to end it by 2030”. But the pledges made by governments, multinational companies, NGOs, and indigenous peoples organisations have utterly failed to address deforestation.

A five year assessment report of the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) states that,

Instead of slowing down, tropical deforestation has continued at an unsustainable pace since the adoption of the NYDF. Since 2014, the world has lost an area of tree cover the size of the United Kingdom every year. Particularly concerning is the loss of tropical primary forests, where average loss was 44 percent higher since 2014 (4.3 million hectares per year) than during the baseline period of 2002–13 (3.0 million hectares per year).

Hate to say I told you so

REDD-Monitor wrote about the New York Declaration on Forests five years ago:

The five year assessment report points to Indonesia as a deforestation success story. The report notes that “primary forest loss in Indonesia slowed considerably in 2017 and 2018, by more than 30 percent compared to the average annual loss rate over the reference period of 2002–16”.

But the report also notes that “average primary forest loss [in Indonesia] since 2014 remains above the historical average (2002–13)”.

And one of the reasons for the decrease in Indonesia’s deforestation is simply that there was more rain in 2017 and 2018. This year’s fires are the worst since 2015.

Lessons learned?

There are several lessons that can be drawn from the failure of the New York Declaration on Forests:

  • REDD doesn’t work. For more than a decade, REDD-Monitor has been pointing out the flaws in the harebrained scheme to allow continued greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels by offsetting these emissions against temporary reductions in deforestation in the Global South.

    In a recent Guest Post on REDD-Monitor, Laura Gifford argues that “The Amazon fires mark the end of REDD+”:

    As the Amazon rainforest burns, and reaches what some scientists have called a “tipping point,” beyond which it might never recover, it is time to unequivocally call an end to the experiment that is REDD+, the development mechanism designed to offset carbon dioxide pollution via investment in tropical forest conservation. The attempt to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation has failed.

  • NGO’s partnerships with forest destroying corporations do not work. In January 2019, when it was clear that deforestation would not be halved by 2020, Mark Tercek, then-CEO of The Nature Conservancy wrote that,

    “The 2020 goal isn’t going to happen, but that’s okay. I’m here to tell companies: don’t despair.”

    What is the point of setting a target, if NGOs simply announce that it’s “okay” to completely ignore the target four years later?

  • Certification doesn’t work. The five year assessment report claims that, “Certification may help to focus company commitments”. But the reality is that certification has failed to stop deforestation. Scott Poynton has written about how companies use Forest Stewardship Council chain of custody certification to greenwash business as usual.

    And egregious cases such as the certification of Green Resources’ monoculture plantations in Uganda, despite the evictions, and on-going impacts on local communities’ livelihoods, illustrate that FSC certification is deeply flawed.

    A recent report by Sophie Chao based on her research with communities in West Papua since 2013, exposes the fact that so-called “sustainable” oil palm plantations are often criticised by indigenous peoples who have lost their land to the plantations. One young woman told Chao that,

    “People think palm oil is green because there are conservation projects. But no one sees the blood and the violence. Protected, not protected – it doesn’t matter. All that land was taken from us without our permission.”

  • Indigenous Peoples’ rights are crucial. The five year assessment report recognises the importance of indigenous peoples, local communities, and land rights to protecting forests:

    Effective conservation of forest ecosystems includes recognizing the contribution of indigenous peoples and local communities to forest conservation. When communities have full land rights to govern forest territories, these forests and the carbon they store are better protected over time. Despite this, indigenous peoples and local communities are still struggling to achieve full recognition and protection of land rights.

  • Over-consumption has to be addressed. Issues of over-consumption are mentioned in passing in the five year assessment report. But the Declaration itself makes no commitment to reduce the consumption of commodities such as palm oil, timber, soya, and beef in the global North.
  • Offsets won’t stop the climate crisis. The five year assessment report was coordinated by a consulting firm called Climate Focus. The Guardian reports Charlotte Streck, director and co-founder of Climate Focus, as saying that “the failure to meet the pledges made five years ago undercut the value of such promises if they were not backed up with finance, detailed plans and on-the-ground implementation”.

    Climate Focus promotes carbon trading as a means of raising finance for forest conservation. Predictably, the five year assessment report writes uncritically about carbon offsets, despite the fact that offsets make the climate crisis worse by allowing emissions from fossil fuels to continue.

    The report even welcomes the offsetting plans of oil companies Eni and Shell, as well as CORSIA, the aviation industry‘s carbon offsetting scheme, despite the disastrous impact these plans would have on the climate crisis:

    There are also signs of higher demand in the future as more companies announce ambitious emission reduction targets. In 2017, Eni started to compensate parts of its own emissions through carbon offset with a focus on forest, land-use management and preservation credits and targets zero net carbon emissions by 2030. Similarly, Shell announced that it would invest USD 300 million in natural ecosystems to contribute to their three-year target to reduce its Net Carbon Footprint by two to three percent. Furthermore, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) under the UN International Civil Aviation Organization could accept forest credits and stimulate investments into REDD+.

Important guys making pledges

Climate Focus director Streck says that,

“We don’t need more important guys standing up making pledges. We need to go beyond declarations. Implementation is complicated, but it’s what we need.”

But the New York Declaration on Forests was created exactly as a mechanism for “important guys” to make pledges.

The Declaration is “a non-legally binding political declaration”. It’s a voluntary agreement and there are no penalties for any countries or companies that signed on and then completely ignored the Declaration.

The Declaration was also intended as a means of promoting REDD. It was funded by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. The Declaration was written by Climate Advisers, a US-based consulting firm. Climate Advisers was working on a Norwegian-funded project titled, “Creating demand for REDD+”.

The head of Climate Advisers, Nigel Purvis, has a history of promoting REDD failures.

Between 2005 and 2007 Purvis was global vice president for The Nature Conservancy. While he was there, he claims to have “spearheaded” the creation of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. The FCPF has succeeded in raising more than US$1 billion, but it has failed completely to address deforestation.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a good example of the FCPF’s failure. As the NYDF five year assessment report points out,

Despite significant investments into REDD+ readiness, average loss of primary forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo more than doubled in the last five years.

The failure to meet the targets of the New York Declaration on Forests should be a wake-up call. REDD has led to a lost decade for forest conservation.

Time to scrap it.

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