Behind grand declarations at COP26, a long track record of failure

  • On Nov. 2, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson released the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, with more than 100 countries promising to “halt and reverse forest loss” by 2030.
  • The declaration includes signatories like Brazil, Indonesia and China, but advocates warn the near-total failure of 2014’s similar New York Declaration on Forests should throw cold water over premature celebrations.
  • Heavyweights of finance and commodity production also pledged to protect forests and move toward net-zero emissions at COP26 this week, but similar pledges made over the past decade have had little impact.

World leaders with furrowed brows gathering under the glare of TV lights. Dire warnings that time is running out to solve the climate and biodiversity crises. Proclamations that bold action is finally right around the corner, backed up by glossy declarations unveiled in extravagant press conferences (nonbinding, of course).

If this sounds like a familiar scene, that’s because it is. This week at COP26 in Glasgow, presidents, prime ministers, and titans of finance alike vowed to get serious about climate change, releasing new agreements to roll back deforestation and harness the power of money to push the planet toward a green energy transition. But environmental advocates say they’ve heard those promises before, and with the new pledges heavy on rhetoric and light on details, a healthy portion of skepticism would pair well with the meat- and dairy-heavy menu served to conference attendees.

“A whole set of promises were made about 2020 that were completely missed,” said Anna Jones, forest and food campaigner with Greenpeace UK. “What we can’t afford to have is another huge extension of those deadlines to 2030 and then not meet them. We need to be seeing a reversal now.”

On Nov. 2, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulled the curtain back on the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, a new pledge to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030” that was signed by heads of state from more than 100 countries. Under the plan, wealthy states would direct $12 billion toward tropical countries over the next four years in an effort to slow climate change by incentivizing the protection of forests. Banks and private industry are expected to chip in with another $7 billion of their own.

The declaration is meant to be a planetary reset, after 2014’s New York Declaration on Forests — where 39 countries promised to halve deforestation by 2020 — almost entirely failed to meet its objectives. Instead, deforestation rose by nearly 20% among its signatories between 2016 and 2020. This time, though, the agreement inked in Glasgow has the backing of countries that control some of the world’s most important forests, most notably Brazil, Russia, China, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Campaigners say the fact that so many new countries have signed on to a deforestation pledge is a positive sign – or at least one that suggests awareness is dawning among heads of state that it’s a problem they can’t afford to ignore anymore.

“It’s great that forests were given a big place on the stage at Glasgow, that they had a head of state level segment on forest,” said Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. “When you look back over the past few decades of climate action, forests had been the Cinderella neglected step sister.”

But without an honest reckoning over why the New York declaration failed to accomplish its objectives, Glasgow could well turn out to be yet another disappointment the planet can ill afford.

“Many of us who’ve been in this business for several decades have seen this movie again and again and again, and the ending never changes. Pledges are made and then nothing happens,” Seymour said.

Aerial view of an area in the Amazon deforested for cattle ranching -- the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon -- in Lábrea, Amazonas state on Sep 15, 2021. Photo © Victor Moriyama / Amazônia em Chamas (Amazon in Flames Alliance)
Aerial view of an area in the Amazon deforested for cattle ranching in Brazil, Sep. 15, 2021. Photo by Victor Moriyama for Amazônia em Chamas (Amazon in Flames Alliance).

Cynics already have evidence that their skepticism is warranted. Just two days after the Glasgow declaration was released, Indonesia’s environment minister walked back her country’s commitment to its core objectives, calling the proposal to end deforestation by 2030 there “inappropriate and unfair.”

The new declaration is also short on a road map for how it will arrive at its lofty goals. There are no yearly targets or commitments by signatories to transparently report on their progress, nor is there mention of penalizing companies that illegally clear forests to make way for plantations and cattle ranches. Most of the language is vague, with signatories promising to “redesign agricultural policies” and “promote sustainable commodity production” without specifying what those policies will look like and how they would be enforced. And because it was signed outside of the UNFCCC framework and is nonbinding, there will be no way for parties to hold each another accountable for breaking their word.

“My sense is there are these big announcements, but the detail contained within them is not there,” said Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK.

It’s also unclear whether the agreement covers all deforestation, or only that which is considered illegal under local laws — a loophole that could allow signatories to claim they’re living up to their pledges while still destroying vast swaths of forests.

Still, some advocates say the existence of the declaration at all is a sign that the winds are changing, with countries that were previously hesitant to commit to initiatives that could hurt their economies starting to recognize that they have to shift course, if not out of planetary responsibility then out of sheer self-interest. In Brazil, for example, where President Jair Bolsonaro has waged war against environmental regulations and thumbed his nose at international pressure to protect the Amazon, droughts related to deforestation and climate change have begun to damage economic output.

“It’s in the self-interest of your farmers to control deforestation because otherwise you kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” Seymour said. “If you keep expanding the agricultural sector by clearing forests, that sector is going to take a hit.”

Whether the declaration is successful at slowing deforestation rates in countries that signed it will depend largely on their domestic politics and the amount of pressure brought to bear on them locally.

“The policies of so many of these countries are demonstrably at variance with what they signed up to, so I think journalists, advocates, and regular citizens should be asking their governments, OK, what are you going to do differently to actually achieve these objectives?” Seymour said.

BlackRock and Cargill to the rescue?

The Glasgow declaration was the headline in a week that’s also featured promises by financial institutions, aid agencies and corporations to put their weight behind forest conservation and a badly needed transition to green energy. Some of the industries that have profited most heavily from fossil fuels and rainforest-destroying agricultural commodity production are now vowing to prioritize forests and the climate over profit, saying they’re putting plans together to move toward “net-zero” carbon emissions.

But environmental advocates say that’s an old tune. Most corporate pledges to end deforestation in their supply chains have thus far been more of a boost to public relations than the planet, as time-bound promises to stop destroying forests have largely been missed. Last year, none of the companies in the Consumer Goods Forum managed to meet their self-pronounced deadline to reach “zero deforestation.” This shoddy track record underlies concerns that agricultural producers and their financial backers are using this week’s pledges to kick the can further down the road instead of taking immediate action.

“We’ve seen statements from companies like Cargill, JBS, and Bunge, the big traders, saying that they’re going to have a new plan by the next COP in a year’s time to be 1.5 [degrees of warming] aligned,” Jones said. “But they’ve been saying they’ll have stopped deforestation for years and years, and they just keep putting it off and not meeting the pledges they’ve already made.”

On Tuesday, a coalition of financial industry heavyweights, led by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and including BlackRock and Allianz, said they would begin moving $130 trillion dollars of capital out of carbon spewing industries. The headline-grabbing pledge was part of a movement in recent years towards private sector-led climate initiatives, spurred in part by the dawning recognition that unchecked climate chaos would hurt corporate profits and a sense among some environmentalists that viable solutions will require buy-in from the financial industry.

“It’s huge, because if they do it, that will put pressure on the companies that are still deforesting because their access to finance will be cut off,” said Seymour.

But some of members of Carney’s coalition are notorious funders of deforestation, and advocates have criticized the slow timeframe of the pledge, saying that without immediate changes it could just be more greenwashing.

“It’s not enough to publish ‘net zero by 2050’ plans if those plans rely on creative carbon accounting over real decarbonisation across the whole of our economies,” Steve Trent, CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation said in a statement about the pledge.

3 November 2021, Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom: 'Justice for the Global South', 'Stop Ecocide' and 'COP26 Act Now, Stop Fossil Fuels' reads a series of signs, as climate activists from the group Extinction Rebellion take to the streets of Glasgow under heavy police presence to protest against political inaction on climate change, and to demand climate justice, now. The protest takes place as Glasgow hosts the United Nations climate change conference COP26, where world leaders gather to negotiate a response to the ongoing climate crisis and emergency. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert
Protestors outside of COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 3, 2021. Photo by Albin Hillert for Lutheran World Foundation via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A significant portion of the financing promised under the Glasgow declaration is expected to be channeled through the LEAF Coalition, a public-private partnership to strengthen global carbon credit markets that counts Amazon, BlackRock, and Walmart among its key members. Built on the back of REDD+, the initiative would essentially pay tropical countries to protect their forests, with corporations buying carbon credits from those countries in order to offset some of the ecological damage caused by their operations elsewhere. In order to participate in LEAF, those companies are required to publicly set targets for emissions reductions beyond the use of offsets, although the coalition will not directly monitor their progress in meeting them.

Supporters of LEAF say offsets purchased by companies engaging with the initiative will be complementary to, rather than a substitute for, a reduction in their operational carbon footprint. But others are wary of the influx of private sector financing into an approach that has failed to deliver results in the past.

“REDD has proved to be pretty ineffective over the past 14 years, and without reviewing the reasons why it’s been ineffective, all of a sudden we’re seeing a huge upscaling through LEAF,” Eisen said. “And there’s serious concerns about its viability and how it might incentivize state capture of land.”

Activists have criticized offsetting as a false solution that lets private industry carry on with ecologically destructive practices, with one Indigenous leader this week calling it “a new form of colonialism.

“Money is not going to save us from money”

If offsetting through LEAF becomes a major component of the new global deforestation action plan, it could threaten Indigenous communities living in forests that tropical governments might want to use to generate carbon credits. That would contradict a separate, and much celebrated, pledge this week by a group of donor countries and foundations to direct $1.7 billion toward Indigenous-led conservation and land tenure.

That pledge follows years of calls for Indigenous leadership in the world’s response to the climate and biodiversity crises, and is symbolic of growing international acknowledgement of the role they have historically played in ecosystem protection. A number of recent studies have shown that forests under Indigenous and other local community control fare far better than those under state governance.

“It’s new in terms of the amount of money, but just as important, in terms of the level of official recognition that the proposal is getting,” said David Kaimowitz, manager of the Forest and Farm Facility at the Food and Agriculture Organization, and a longtime advocate for Indigenous land tenure rights.

If disbursed, that sum could be an unprecedented boost to Indigenous-led conservation and land rights initiatives. But like the Glasgow declaration, the pledge is fuzzy on the details of who will receive the money and through what channels.

“To support Indigenous forest management, they’re going to have to realize that the way to manage risk is not by using traditional rules, mechanisms, and approaches,” Kaimowitz said. “It’s by having an intercultural dialogue that asks, how can we ensure that money is well used and gets the results we’re looking for in a way that’s culturally compatible with the reality that Indigenous peoples are living in?”

Tuntiak Katan, Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), Global Alliance of Territorial Communites (GATC) speaking at the Forest event at the SEC, Glasgow. 02/11/2021. Photograph: Karwai Tang/ UK Government
Tuntiak Katan of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) speaking at COP26, Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 2, 2021. Photo by Karwai Tang for the U.K. government via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

While many Indigenous organizations and advocates have celebrated the announcement, others are not ready to heap praise on donors quite yet — especially given the reluctance of those donors to take a harder line on the extractive and agricultural industries that have historically been the biggest threats to their societies.

“Money is not going to save us from money,” said Alejandro Argumedo, Amazon lead for the Swift Foundation and a member of Peru’s Indigenous Quechua people.

Argumedo said he worries that the sudden rush of interest in supporting Indigenous communities as a climate and biodiversity solution could have unintended consequences. Many of those communities, he said, don’t live in societies oriented around money, and if donor rules require them to set up new structures to manage the funds, it could erode traditional cultures and distort the social equilibria that made them effective forest custodians in the first place.

“If you inject cash into a non-monetary system that has allowed the forest to remain standing, you’re disturbing relationships that are peaceful and based on exchange systems and values of reciprocity,” he said.

While increasing support for Indigenous communities in the context of biodiversity and forest protection is a welcome development, Argumedo said the world has to back up that commitment by pushing for those communities to obtain full legal control over their land so they can block oil and mining companies from gaining access to it.

Overall, Argumedo said he’s “pessimistic” that the proclamations being issued at COP26 will amount to real change at the scale that’s needed to protect the world’s forests. He went to his first global climate summit in 1996, but since then he’s grown wary of taking governments at their word when they say that they’re ready to reverse years of destructive policies. Until there’s collective will to impose concrete regulations on the real drivers of forest loss — global finance and industrial commodity production — there’s little reason to place much stock in pledges that are simply being plastered over yesterday’s failures, he said.

“It’s all a distraction. The real destruction is continuing, with expansion of oil extraction and more mining permits in the tropical forests of the world. Just look at the Amazon, with conservation concessions that became privatized lands for logging. Focus on that. And stop it, because that’s what’s causing climate change.”

Banner image: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Joe Biden, President of the United States of America, on arrival to the COP26 World Leaders Summit. Photo by Karwai Tang for the U.K. government via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Note: This piece was amended in order to avoid suggesting that the LEAF coalition does not have policies intended to safeguard Indigenous rights, and to clarify that participating companies are required to publicly set science-based targets for emissions reductions.