A team of political and environmental researchers, including Oxford’s Professor Connie McDermott, came together on October 19th to issue an urgent warning: more inclusive and coherent global action is desperately needed to save forests and avert severe social, economic, and environmental disruption.
Since 1990, 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses. According to data from the University of Maryland and the online monitoring group Global Forest Watch, tree cover loss in 2020 was well above the average for the last twenty years—making it the third worst year for forest destruction since 2002, when serious monitoring began.
Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ climate wing, estimates that, between 2007 and 2016, 23% of CO2 emissions globally stemmed from deforestation and forest degradation.
The panel discussed the three-tiered problem plaguing deforestation policy: complexity, regulatory gaps, and implementation gaps. Today, deforestation policy is comprised of a dizzying patchwork of transnational, national, state, and municipal regulations that leave farmers, businesses, and policymakers alike confused. The result, according to the team of researchers, has been feet-dragging and implementation gaps, which have accelerated the pace of deforestation
In a press release, the team of researchers explained the idea of “imported deforestation,” the phenomenon where deforestation in the Global South is driven by a combination of domestic factors and the broader international market and demand for agricultural commodities, bioenergy, and other bio-economic needs in the Global North. A key focus of the panel was highlighting how the narrow focus of modern deforestation policy, which emphasises curbing illegal timber use, obscures more pressing drivers of deforestation, such as agricultural expansion for cattle breeding and the cultivation of soy and palm oil.
Developing countries, such as Ghana, face an impending one-two punch from the laggard state of deforestation policy: tree loss continues to bite into the revenues of people desperately reliant on agribusiness revenues, and rising sea levels and natural disasters from climate change risk ravaging seaside communities.
Yet, Oxford’s Connie McDermott warns that a Western-imposed, one-size-fits-all approach to stopping deforestation also carries considerable risks. “Future change needs to come from all sides,” she said, “research and interventions need to focus on the power dynamics of land use and supply chain governance, and who benefits and who loses.”
Although the UK and EU have introduced policies to curb illegal timber production, these strategies, according to McDermott, often ignore the complex dynamics at play on-the-ground, which alienates local populations and handicaps the effectiveness of the policies.
“There is certainly a democratic deficit with a lot of these policies,” she added, “and there are ethical inconsistencies here: these regulations sometimes say that Western priorities should come first and that local people should not have access to their own resources.”
The path forward, according to the researchers, will require striking a delicate balance between shifting incentives in the global economy and protecting those directly affected by deforestation and the policies that are introduced to tackle it. “The crucial role of states,” according to Dr. Sarah Lilian Burns of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Argentina, is to “correct ecologically or socially unacceptable market failures.”
At the same time, the panel encourages the EU and the UK to support local stakeholders, such as smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa or southeast Asia, in conversations about deforestation policy. “There is a lot of work and effort already happening on the ground, with support from local people, such as approaches to smart cocoa in Ghana, said McDermott, “why don’t we support that process rather than impatiently and unilaterally announcing more demands from the international community?”
The meeting comes just a week ahead of COP26, an upcoming summit in Glasgow bringing together world leaders to reassess global progress on meeting the goals laid out in the 2016 Paris Climate Accord. According to reports, the UK government is pushing for an ambitious agreement to halt and reverse forest loss. Those initiatives will include demands that big producers of soya, coffee, cocoa, and palm oil halt clearances—the second largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
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