How to ensure the Glasgow forest declaration is a success (commentary)

  • COP26 featured several major announcements on forests, including the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by 133 world leaders, who committed to work to halt forest loss and land degradation.
  • Alison Hoare, Senior Research Fellow of the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House, says “History would suggest that such commitments are very easy to make, but much harder to achieve.”
  • Hoare lays out some critical steps that leaders need to take to ensure that the Glasgow Declaration doesn’t end up as another empty promise.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

The Glasgow conference saw a plethora of announcements on forests. The most high-profile of these was the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by 133 world leaders, who committed to work to halt forest loss and land degradation.

History would suggest that such commitments are very easy to make, but much harder to achieve. A similar pledge was made in 2014, under the New York Declaration on Forests, yet forest loss has accelerated in many parts of the world.

Note: The figures for the New York Declaration includes only national-level signatories–sub-national jurisdictions that signed independently of national governments are excluded from the charts. Including sub-national jurisdictions pushes the primary forest share from 39% to 55%.

However, there are reasons for some optimism that the Glasgow commitments may fair better. One is the broad scope of the commitments – these encompassing finance, land tenure and forest rights for indigenous peoples and local communities, and trade policies – as well as the range of countries that have signed up. Tackling deforestation will require a multi-faceted and international effort.

Yet, the scale of the task is huge; nine years is not long to halt forest loss and land degradation. The leaders that have made these commitments will need to confront entrenched economic interests – within their own governments, as well as within the business and investment community, and they will need to find solutions to tackling the urgent issues of poverty and food insecurity that are prevalent in too many parts of the world.

This latter point was made by the Indonesian minister of environment who commented that it would be ‘inappropriate and unfair’ if the pledge was interpreted as referring to zero deforestation, and further, that deforestation pledges must not stand in the way of development.

Deforestation in Borneo. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Indeed, the Global Pledge is open to interpretation – and this vagueness is in part what enabled so many countries to sign up. Thus, what is meant by halting forest loss and land degradation is not spelt out, whether the goal is net or zero forest loss, what types of forests are being referred to (whether natural forests only or also plantations) and whether forest degradation is also included within the commitment (either as part of forest loss or of land degradation).

How the commitments are to be interpreted will have a huge impact on their outcomes, both for the planet and people. However, different approaches and solutions will be needed in different countries. Therefore, of more importance than debating what is meant by the various pledges is to ensure that the processes and mechanisms by which countries decide on ways forward are inclusive and fair.

As countries seek to implement these commitments – regardless of how they are interpreted – there will be difficult decisions to be made. The need to protect biodiverse natural forests is an imperative, and so is the need to establish secure and resilient livelihoods for rural populations. Pressure on forests is also set to increase in future, with growing demand for natural resources – for timber, agriculture, and minerals. Ironically, greater deployment of green technologies is likely to increase demand for minerals, many of which are mined in forest areas. To return to Indonesia, the country’s commitment to the Glasgow forest pledge has been described as a potential ‘risk’ to the country’s electric battery supply chains if nickel miners come under ‘increased pressure’ to stem deforestation.

Establishing inclusive decision-making processes will be of critical importance to finding ways to reconcile these competing demands, and to do so in such a way that does not increase inequity and social conflict. Such processes will be needed both between countries and, equally importantly, between the various interest groups within those countries.

Intact rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Intact rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The need for collaboration between countries was highlighted in all the pledges made in Glasgow, with governments variously committing to ‘work together’, ‘engage collaboratively’ and to have an ‘open and inclusive’ dialogue. This is positive, but to make this a reality, an essential aspect of this collaboration will be ensuring the delivery of the promised finance by developed country partners – many of the announcements made on finance are ‘intentions’ only, and will require approval by the respective governments.

At the national level, it will be essential to ensure that decision-making is not dominated by the interests of the politically and economically powerful; the argument that forests are standing in the way of development is all too often made by those who do not represent the rural poor.

To facilitate this, what will be needed is to hard-wire inclusive approaches into policies and laws. In addition, reform and capacity strengthening of the institutions overseeing forests will be needed in many countries. This is important both for government institutions – so that they are able to implement inclusive processes – and for civil society, so that are able to engage effectively in these.

Ivindo River in Gabon. The Congo Basin has been identified as a strategic priority region for support by the Bezos Earth Fund. Photo credit: ZB / Mongabay
Ivindo River in Gabon, which is part of the Congo Basin. Photo credit: ZB / Mongabay

The EU’s approach to tackle illegal logging in tropical forest countries, implemented over the last couple of decades, offers some valuable lessons for how this could be achieved.

A key element of Europe’s approach was to negotiate trade agreements – known as Voluntary Partnership Agreements – with partner countries to support the trade in legal timber. Multi-stakeholder processes were established as a critical component of these, an approach that has facilitated a shift to more inclusive forest governance in many of the partner countries, including in Indonesia. This shift has seen more participatory policy-making and the engagement of civil society in forest monitoring, with significant improvements in government accountability and decision-making.

While the scale of the challenge is daunting, it is important that the commitments made at Glasgow are implemented. If the pledge to halt forest loss were successfully implemented it would contribute over a sixth of the reduction in GHG emissions that is needed to keep the world within 1.5 degrees of warming. Thus, it is imperative that those who have signed up to these commitments on forests see them through; there will need to be strong and visionary leadership.

Header image: Forest in the Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.