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Mock exam on zero deforestation: how did we do?


Today, a significant progress report on forest conservation across the world will be launched. Pre-released last week, the collaborative assessment led by Climate Focus in partnership with other organizations assesses progress towards the international goals in the 2015 New York Declaration on Forests. It shows a mixed scorecard and highlights deficiencies in data.

The new progress report is a welcome and essential attempt to measure and create accountability around that declaration – and, indirectly, other international goals on forests. It includes a diverse range of indicators, bringing together multiple sources which helps to address individual weaknesses they each hold.

Can we see the light at the end of the forest? © Will Ashley-CantelloCan we see the light at the end of the forest? © Will Ashley-Cantello

What does it tell us?

Here are a few of the key points:

  • Gross loss of natural forests does not show signs of declining. Though a rise in natural forest regeneration and restoration provides a rosier picture on a net basis. Company and government pledges to tackle deforestation and restore forests keep coming (a further 108 company commitments since 2014), but we have limited means to measure their impact yet.
  • Progress made on sustainably sourcing policies for palm oil and wood products is promising if it can continue, while soy and beef create cause for alarm with very high forest footprints, less recognised or no certification standard, and fewer company commitments.
  • International funding for strategies to tackle deforestation (including but not exclusively REDD+ programmes) has continued to rise. Disbursement and/or delivery of which is harder to measure and has certainly made less progress.
  • International cooperation to improve forest governance and law enforcement provides some reasons to be cheerful (e.g. the upcoming first licensed timber shipment under Indonesia’s VPA to reach EU borders) but, tragically, last year was the worst year for recorded killings of land and environment defenders: 181 lives were lost.
  • For forest people, the report looks forward to more available data on land rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities from the upcoming LandMark tool. For now it reports that the number of clean cookstoves distributed has risen consistently and sharply since 2005, although, counter-intuitively, finance for them has fallen just as sharply and consistency since 2012.

Were this a school report for our collective effort, I think it would sum up with something like: “Works hard, should hand in more homework for marking, and based on current submissions results need to improve to pass the final exams.”

Broader questions about how we measure progress

For me, this report also raises pertinent questions about how we measure progress. Here are three particular concerns:

1. Counting pledges not actions

We need to move beyond pledges to be able to show progress in real change on the ground. This report has not been able to do this to any significant degree. Most urgently, I argue, this needs to be done with respect to company commitments to remove deforestation from their supply chains. But it applies across the board. For example, in my experience (particularly in Malawi) distributing cookstoves does not necessarily lead to a forest friendly outcome – or any change at all – as social factors can mean the stove is left in the corner or used to cook more with the same amount of fuel. And while the restoration pledges are racking up, how many have really begun to be delivered?

The report acknowledges these shortcomings, calls for greater company transparency on delivery, and notes there are some prospects of improvement, e.g. the coming Bonn Challenge Barometer for restoration action. But if you took the public and private sector pledges out of this report, it would read very differently indeed.

Other reports have used some proxies. WWF has been able to report on company progress in actually buying certified sustainable palm oil and soy this year through the company “scorecards” on both these commodities. Last year we did the same for timber but with a tighter UK/EU focus. While real progress was found on palm oil (59 companies reported having 100% certified product), for soy the picture was bleak (only 11 companies at 100%). Both will need further improvements and there were a large number of laggards on soy who haven’t even begun the journey.

WWF's "Saving Forests at Risk" report in 2015 estimated forest loss out to 2030.

WWF’s “Saving Forests at Risk” report estimated forest loss out to 2030. © WWF

2. Tail wagging the dog?

As important as the NYDF is, the more ambitious, legitimate, and universal commitment on forests is represented by the targets in the Sustainable Development Goal on land and forests. Rather than progress on the SDGs being measured here, we ought to have a clearer report on progress through the SDG process.

That said, this is a welcome interim approach. The coalition producing this progress assessment has certainly made a strong critique of the indicators currently on the table for the SDG targets relating to forests. Without an indicator of net or gross forest loss and the same for restoration, reforestation, and afforestation, the proposed indicators aren’t ‘fit for purpose’. This UN led process needs to go further and faster.

3. No place for forest health or biodiversity

The forest data revolution continues to be silent on forest health and biodiversity. The diversity of fauna and flora species in a forest is integral to its resilience, carbon storage, and longevity. Numerous reports have shown that if vertebrate species like fruit eating monkeys are lost in the Amazon, for example, this causes a shift to less dense, lower carbon tree species. And look no further than the series of articles in the 2015 forest health special issue of Science for the case for better monitoring global forest health. While we continue to measure progress solely through forest area or carbon stored we could be missing significant risks. At WWF-UK we are working on approaches to help fill this gap in global monitoring of forest biodiversity.

This mock exam is certainly helpful – we have some idea of the weaknesses we need to redress. It shows us we have much more work to do if we are to pass the final exams in 2020 and 2030. It also shows us we have important blind spots. It’s time to work together to improve our results.

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