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UN Climate Change Summit Yields Major Announcements on Deforestation

Governments pledged to halt destruction of the world’s forests. But conservationists warn that words – and billions of dollars in aid – aren’t enough to halt a leading cause of climate change.

by Robert S. Eshelman
Sep 24 2014, 8:45pm

Image via Flickr

Among the few commitments to emerge from a one-day climate summit — held at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday and attended by over 100 heads of state — was a promise to end destruction of the world's forests by 2030 and funnel over $1 billion in aid to countries where forest conservation is most needed.

Conservation groups, however, say the moratorium — the New York Declaration on Forests — fails to act quickly enough to halt deforestation and that past financial commitments, particularly in Indonesia, were poorly planned and implemented.

"The New York Declaration is missing ambitious targets and tangible actions," said Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo. "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."

Bill Barclay, policy and research director at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), told VICE News: "The 2030 deadline is pretty far out and of course we're looking for deeper action and tighter guidelines."

The declaration was endorsed by 27 nations, including the US, and subnational governments in Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, and Peru — areas comprising the world's largest intact tropical rainforests.

Deforestation accounts for at least 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — roughly the same amount generated by all the world's cars, trucks, trains, boats, and planes combined. The cultivation of just four agricultural commodities — soy, palm oil, beef and paper — accounts for around half of global deforestation.

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In addition to the New York Declaration, the summit prompted the UK and Norway to pledge hundreds of millions of dollars to help countries clamp down on deforestation.

The UK promised $98 million to encourage businesses to source agricultural products from sustainably-managed forests and an additional $137 million to end illegal logging. "Investing in the better management of natural resources and putting a stop to deforestation is the smart thing to do," UK Department of International Development Secretary Justine Greening said during a symposium on forests and climate change held on Monday. "Our assistance will help companies, communities, smallholders and governments work together to reduce deforestation and increase crop yields."

Peru agreed on Tuesday to make its agricultural sector carbon neutral by 2021 in exchange for $300 million from Norway. Although rates of deforestation remain low in Peru's portion of the Amazon, it is among the best preserved tropical rainforests in the world and home to 350,000 indigenous people.

'The government is going up against some very powerful corporate interests. These are very lucrative companies and there is tremendous resistance to reforming this sector.'

Norway also partnered with Liberia, offering up to $150 million until 2020. Around 43 percent of the remaining Upper Guinea forests of West Africa lie within Liberia's borders. The Norwegian funds will be used for strengthening law enforcement in the country's forestry sector and encouraging agricultural production only on land that has already been cleared.

While generally supportive of the UK and Norwegian commitments, some conservationists point to the failure of a similar effort in Indonesia to curb deforestation.

In 2009, Norway offered $1 billion to Indonesia in exchange for a moratorium on the issuance of new logging pledges. A University of Maryland study found, however, that despite the moratorium, Indonesia's rate of forest destruction rose, even surpassing the notoriously high level of clearing in the Brazilian Amazon.

"It's challenging," RAN's Barclay told VICE News. "There's lots of problems in Indonesia with illegal logging and the issuance of licenses for concessions."

"It's been a real struggle. [The government] is going up against some very powerful corporate interests," Barclay added. "These are very lucrative companies and there is tremendous resistance to reforming this sector."

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In this way, Norway's assistance to Indonesia illuminates the vexing problems bound up in curbing illegal logging, clamping down on government corruption, and figuring out how to cultivate agricultural goods in ways that don't rely on cutting down forests.

"The key issues for Peru and Liberia, as we've learned in Indonesia, is government transparency and monitoring the level of deforestation," said Barclay. "New satellite technology is lending help with monitoring but this information needs to be translated into government accountability."

Liberia is emerging from a major civil war and is at the center of West Africa's Ebola epidemic — a situation that Barclay believes will make it difficult to implement forest protections.

Susanne Breitkopf, senior political advisor at Greenpeace International, told VICE News: "For Peru, it's of the upmost importance that domestic reforms take place to ensure that indigenous territories are demarcated and law enforcement mechanisms are set up. Law enforcement is the key to ensure the success of these agreements."

And, like Liberia, she said, Peru currently lacks adequate protections for local communities and the capacity to fight corruption and illegal logging.

"Indigenous groups, civil society organizations, and local communities must be involved in the planning and implementation of the projects from the outset," said Breitkopf. "Top-down agreements, drawn up in national capitals, that don't take into account the reality on the ground just won't succeed."

"Just throwing money at the problem will not solve the issue." 

Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman

Image via Flickr

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