Nature and Biodiversity

Our forests need a global rescue operation, and it must start now

The Amazon rain forest (R), bordered by deforested land prepared for the planting of soybeans, is pictured in this aerial photo taken over Mato Grosso state in western Brazil, October 4, 2015. Brazil will produce a record 97.8 million tonnes of soybeans in 2015/16, a 3.2 percent rise compared to 2014/15, but much of this additional volume will be stored in the country, with little impact on export volumes, estimated on Monday the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (ABIOVE).  Picture taken October 4, 2015.  REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTS35W9

Image: REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Florian Reber
Manager, Tropical Forest Alliance 2020
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The now snowy streets and frosty temperatures in Davos certainly meet the weather expectations of those participants who have travelled to the Forum's Annual Meeting. Yet, had they come to the highest town of the Alps just two weeks earlier, they would have experienced a very different backdrop: no snow at all up until high altitudes with only thin slopes made with artificially produced snow. Indeed, Switzerland is experiencing record-breaking low snow levels after having had the driest December since record-taking began in 1864.

In a normal year, the natural seasonal hazard would be avalanches. This year, not far away from Davos in the southern parts of Graubünden, some of the biggest forest fires in the recent history of Switzerland happened between Christmas and early January. The now missing forest will increase the exposure of villages to future avalanche and rock-fall risk.

Globally, the link between climate change, forests, land use and economic development is one of the most urgent challenges to solve if we are to avoid costly and irreversible impacts of climate change. In fact, emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use account for one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is roughly equal to the emissions from burning of coal, natural gas and oil for electricity and heat production. In 2015, the forest fires in Indonesia, sparked by an exceptionally strong El Niño year and unsustainable land use practices such as slash and burn forests clearing, have caused more CO2 emissions per day than the entire US economy.

Furthermore, tropical forests and agriculture constitute an important source of income, development and provide livelihoods for millions of rural communities and indigenous peoples. The protection of tropical forests thus not only matters for mitigating climate change, it is a fundamental enabler of sustainable rural development, healthy and productive ecosystems and biodiversity.

Therefore, and to guarantee sustainable growth and prosperity, business as usual is not an option. But incremental change won’t be enough – what is needed is truly transformative change.

How can such transformative change in a complex system be achieved? A number of elements have to play together. Think of the renewable energy sector, for example. The combination of technology innovation, regulatory and policy change, corporate and government leadership, as well as demand incentives, have created the conditions for radically different energy systems. Once a certain level of momentum has materialised across all these enablers, renewable energy started entering the mainstream.

Regarding forest protection, it is widely recognized that the public commitments from leading consumer goods companies for products free of tropical deforestation are opening up unprecedented opportunities. They have sparked a new zero-deforestation movement that quickly rose across supply chains and tropical forest regions.

For example, the zero-deforestation commitments of some of the world’s largest buyers and producers of palm oil infused trust with governments to set corresponding policies that will enable such production on their own territory. Last November, a two-year dialogue among governments, industry and civil society resulted in the signing of the Marrakesh Declaration by seven West African Countries, together representing 13% of the world’s tropical forests and committing to deforestation-free palm oil development and protecting 70% of their forests. In 2016, we have also seen more policy leadership in Indonesia, where the government has recently issued a far-reaching moratorium for palm oil development on peatlands, including for existing concessions.

Another important variable in the equation is the changing preference of an increasing number of investors looking for low-carbon opportunities. The Carbon Disclosure Project has recently reported that over 365 investors, with a total of $22 trillion in assets under management now ask companies to disclose information on deforestation risks. The analysis also finds that over $900 billion in annual turnover of publicly listed companies is at risk from investors turning away, due to deforestation risks.

These are all remarkable developments. The crux of the agenda is however to make it all happen on the ground. Realizing the needed transformations is too big a challenge for any actor or sector on its own. It needs collaboration by governments, industry, civil society and financial markets, local communities and indigenous peoples. All need to understand the opportunity and the risks. It needs true collaboration and partnership.

In Davos, the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global public-private partnership to realize deforestation-free supply chains, will convene leaders from government, industry, representatives of indigenous peoples and civil society to continue the necessary dialogue for realizing their shared objectives. This group of leaders has embarked on a journey: a journey that aims to create conditions for success and mobilise the needed leadership that will feed change on the ground.

All the Davos participants will be reminded of the importance of trees each time they walk along the central hallway of the Congress Centre. In the middle of it, an art installation shows a 40-metre mimicry of a 150 year old hemlock tree that the Davos participants can continue to build. The collaborative effort to “grow” the tree installation stands for the collective action that is needed for sustainable growth in the real world.

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