This article originally ran in the Nature Conservancy's Global Insights.
Another year down, another year closer to the 2020 deadline of the New York Declaration on Forests. In 2014, more than 50 companies, including household names like Unilever, Cargill, Nestle and Walmart, signed the declaration, committing to eliminate deforestation in four key commodities by 2020: beef, soy, palm oil, and pulp and paper. This enormous undertaking is a stepping stone to the even bigger goal of eliminating deforestation in all supply chains by 2030.
The 2020 goal isn’t going to happen, but that’s okay. I’m here to tell companies: don’t despair.
I understand the angst that some corporate leaders may be feeling. From their standpoint, there’s only a year left before failure to meet the 2020 deadline—and before NGOs come after them for dropping the ball.
But I see things a little differently. Companies have much to be applauded for—as long as they have a solid plan in place to further ramp up progress toward their commitments.
The 2020 deforestation goals represent the first serious attempt to implement deforestation commitments. Companies made timebound plans and pulled business units in key producing countries into cross-company planning on deforestation (often for the first time). These companies gained a much better sense of their deforestation footprints, which allowed them to prioritize strategies and resources. For example, many companies decided to focus on palm oil in Indonesia, soy in Brazil, and cocoa in Cote D’Ivoire. None of that would have happened without the urgency created by the 2020 commitments.
Meanwhile, NGOs mobilized in two key areas: tools and transparency.
Implementing massive deforestation commitments requires sophisticated tracking and monitoring technology. But until recently, these tools didn’t exist. So the World Resources Institute developed Global Forest Watch, the first monitoring platform that tracked forest loss on a global scale. It spun off Global Forest Watch Pro, which allows companies to zero in on specific supply chains in specific places. The Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy Program developed TRASE, a tracking tool that allows companies to see where certain commodities are going, and which destinations are linked to deforestation in areas of origin. This is a key first step to understanding a company’s deforestation footprint and targeting actions to improve it.
Within origination countries, NGOs and companies have collaborated as never before to produce innovative tools to help implement commitments. TNC worked with the soy sector in Brazil to produce Agroideal, for example, which helps market actors identify cleared land that is environmentally suitable and economically viable for soy expansion. This relieves pressure to cut down native habitat in the Cerrado, Brazil’s vast and incredibly biodiverse savanna.
The second component is transparency. When the companies first made these deforestation commitments, they lacked the clarity they needed to implement them. For example, what definitions should they use for key terms like forests, deforestation and conversion? What are the best monitoring options? What are expectations and standards around transparency, verification, supply chain management? In response, environmental NGOs—like TNC, Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace, and others—banded together and established the Accountability Framework to fill the information gap and produce guidance for companies, much of which has already been road-tested with businesses around the world.
These business operation changes, new technologies and working coalitions would likely not have happened without the 2020 commitments. They generated urgency and unlocked critical funding. Now it’s up to companies to develop credible plans to follow through on their 2030 deforestation commitments. That’s what NGOs are looking for now.
So what does a credible plan look like? Benchmark against the Accountability Framework; cross-check planning against it; take advantage of tools like Global Forest Watch and Agroideal; and be sure to work with supply chain partners and governments. It takes a village to get this important work done.
I’m optimistic about 2019, but I’m also a realist. I know the challenges. Both NGOs and companies need to do much more on beef, which alone accounts for half of deforestation globally. We need to bring emerging market actors, especially China, into the conversation. We need to be much more inventive on mobilizing capital to help farmers as they transition to zero deforestation and zero conversion production.
And since deforestation and land conversion account for about 15% of global carbon emissions, we need to do all this very quickly—before time runs out on the opportunity to control climate change.
But the 2020 deforestation commitments—and the results we’re seeing today—demonstrate that we are moving forward. As the climate change agenda and deforestation agendas start to converge, I hope to see even more aggressive action in this space—from companies and NGOs alike. We’re in a great place to get started. Let’s get to work.