As the dust settles on COP26, what did it deliver for the world’s forests?

This contrasts with the feeling of disappointment with world
leaders again falling short of delivering the changes needed to tackle the
climate crisis.

Whilst Glasgow saw a plethora of
pledges on deforestation from governments,
companies and financial institutions, these were thin on
detail and lacking accountability.

Here we look at the
key COP26 announcements on deforestation and what they might
mean for the world’s forests.

The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration

The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use saw over 140 countries commit
to ‘halt and reverse’ deforestation by 2030.

Viewed optimistically, the declaration is
the first of its kind to bring together so many Heads of
State including signatories from key countries with tropical forests. It
signals growing awareness that there is no way we can contain climate change to
1.5C while destroying the world’s remaining forests.

However, the Glasgow Declaration is a purely
voluntary statement and not a legal
commitment. It didn’t even receive a mention in
the final negotiated COP26 text. The lack of accountability in the declaration is
particularly worrying given the failure of previous similar pledges such
as the New York Declaration on Forests, which committed to halve deforestation
by 2020 and end it completely by 2030.

If the Glasgow Declaration fails to halt
deforestation, it will amount to little more than a PR
stunt that helps grab headlines and gives a veneer of
respectability to some of the worst offenders. The fact that
Indonesian Ministers cast
 on their ability to deliver on the country’s commitment, whilst
the ink on the pledge was barely dry, does not give cause for
confidence. Nor does the track record of Brazilian
President Jair Bolsonaro, who signed up to
the declaration despite allowing
the accelerated destruction
of the Amazon rainforest, which latest data shows is at
15 year high.

Funding pledges

Public and private funding amounting to almost
£14 billion ($19.2 billion) was pledged at COP26 to
tackle deforestation, and increase support for Indigenous
Peoples and local communities. Resourcing grassroots communities is vital
to help people to formalise their rights, defend legal cases and fight the
threats to their land and livelihoods – which can come from companies
but also the state. These groups are on the frontline of defending the environment, yet currently
receive just less than 1% of climate funding.

However, as we pointed out at the time of the
announcement, COP26’s finance pledge is dwarfed by the flows of
finance to deforestation. Our recent analysis found that banks and investors in the UK, EU, US,
and China ploughed around eight times the amount pledged at
COP26 – $157 billion since the Paris Climate
Agreement – into agribusiness firms linked to tropical deforestation
and associated human rights abuses. And these financiers netted an
estimated $1.74 billion in income along the way.

So what progress was made at COP26 to stop these financial

Are banks and financial institutions going
to clean up their act?

At the start of COP26, a group of over 30 organisations,
including Global Witness, put out a joint statement highlighting the 7
key elements that must be in any effective plan to
address financial flows driving deforestation and associated
human rights abuses. Sadly, none of the commitments at COP26 got
anywhere near achieving this.

Amongst the finance announcements at
COP26 was a statement by 30 asset managers with $8.7 trillion assets under
management committing to “eliminate commodity-driven deforestation from
our investment and lending portfolios by 2025”. The approach appears
to emphasize influencing companies they finance, rather than outright
divestment from repeat offenders – so the jury is out on what this will deliver
in practice. No high street banks signed up to this commitment, and almost all
of the financiers featured in our recent report as significant sources of financing for
deforestation financing were conspicuous by their absence, including
the likes of HSBC, JPMorgan and BNP Paribas.

In addition, the Glasgow Financial
Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) announced that financial
institutions controlling $130 trillion are now signed up to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050. Despite widespread
recognition of the role of forests in climate change, having a climate policy
or a ‘net zero’ commitment by 2050 will not require a financial
institution to stop bankrolling
deforestation. In fact, they could in principle meet
a Net Zero commitment – as currently defined
by GFANZ  – and still be
funding the rampant destruction of rainforests. Alliance members include HSBC, BNP Paribas and JP Morgan – all of
whom were featured in our recent report as serial financiers of some of the
worst known agribusiness companies linked to deforestation and human rights
abuses. Sadly, these new commitments give us
no confidence that these banks and investors will end
their complicity in global forest destruction.

Corporate/Big agribusiness commits to….
what exactly?

Globally, commercial agribusiness is  the number one driver of deforestation, as forests are
destroyed to clear land for crops and livestock. At COP26,
the Agricultural Commodity Companies Corporate Statement of Purpose committed to
laying out a roadmap to 1.5C for companies responsible for half of
global trade in forest-risk commodities. However, it says little beyond the reiteration of previous commitments on
deforestation. Indeed, many of the signatories featured
in our Deforestation Dividends report and have made
similar commitments before. We have engaged with them repeatedly
on their links to deforestation and human rights abuses, only to
see continued bad practice.

What next?

Our planet and communities on the frontline cannot
afford more delayed action and empty promises on deforestation. The
repeated failure of voluntary commitments by governments, companies and
financiers shows that we can no longer rely
on toothless pledges.

As UK Minister for the International Environment and Climate,
Lord Goldsmith, pointed out at an event we hosted as part
of COP26: “If we cannot move to a situation where banks cease investing in
the kind of destructive activities that we’re talking about here, if that
doesn’t happen, as a consequence of commitment across the board within that
sector, then the only alternative is [that] government regulates”
. The
question is how much longer before we reach this point? How long
will global leaders wait whilst the Amazon and other tropical rainforests
continue to be decimated?

The only way to embed real accountability and remove the
incentives driving global deforestation is through regulation. This is
why it’s so crucial that consumer countries and hubs of global
finance like China, the EU, UK and US bring forward laws to
stop their firms and financial institutions fuelling the
destruction of the world’s climate-critical forests.

Ultimately, the success of the pledges
made in Glasgow will be judged by what actually changes on
the ground for forests and for the Indigenous People and local
communities that depend on and defend them. The
world will be watching.

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