More than 100 world leaders representing over 85 percent of the world’s forests pledged to halt deforestation over the next decade Tuesday at COP26, the United Nations climate summit underway in Glasgow, Scotland.
The destruction of forests is a major factor driving up global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with about 23 percent of total emissions stemming from agriculture, forestry and other land uses.
Trees play a critical role in absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow, thereby slowing global warming. When they are cut, and are either burned or decay, they release this carbon into the atmosphere.
While environmentalists and many politicians have worked to keep the world’s remaining forests intact for years during previous U.N. climate summits, they suggested the new agreement could mark a turning point.
“Our challenge now must be to halt deforestation and begin restoring forests around the world, and we must do this within the decade or risk the collapse of forests world wide. It’s a huge undertaking,” the naturalist David Attenborough said in a video prepared for the announcement. “We need to accelerate action on a global scale.”
Britain, which is co-hosting COP26 with Italy, has coined the mantra “coal, cars, cash and trees” to describe the top priorities at the climate summit: phasing out fossil fuels, switching to clean vehicles, mobilizing funding and stopping deforestation.
“Climate change and biodiversity are two sides of the same coin. We can’t deal with the devastating loss of habitat and species without tackling climate change,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at event Tuesday.
In addition to the deforestation pledge, 28 countries also vowed to work to remove deforestation from the global supply chain for goods such as palm oil, soy and cocoa. And 30 financial institutions covering more than $8.7 trillion in assets agreed to eliminate investment in commodity-driven deforestation.
“As consumers, we’ll all be able to enjoy guilt-free chocolate,” Johnson said. “I mean, I suppose that’s carbon guilt-free, not calorie guilt-free chocolate.”
In brief remarks at the event Tuesday, President Biden pledged to take a “whole-of-government” approach to safeguarding forests, saying he would work with Congress to set aside $9 billion through 2030 to protect them.
Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez said his country — 52 percent of which is covered by tropical forests — would commit to protecting 30 percent of its territory by 2022. He added that Colombia was on track to fulfill its commitment under the “1 trillion tree” initiative announced at the World Economic Forum last year in Davos, Switzerland.
Other efforts in the past have fallen far short of their goals. In 2014, more than 200 governments, companies and civil society organizations signed the New York Declaration of Forests, which called for halving the rate deforestation by 2020 and halting it by 2030.
Instead, deforestation remains rampant worldwide. A satellite-based survey by Global Forest Watch found that, in 2020, the world lost nearly 100,00 square miles of tree cover — an area roughly the size of Colorado.
“It’s become abundantly clear that the destruction of nature writ large is causing unprecedented harm,” said Morgan Gillespy, director of the Food and Land Use Coalition at the World Resources Institute.
Outside of the global framework, several countries have undertaken their own efforts to safeguard trees. Pakistan, for instance, is in the midst of a “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami” reforestation campaign. The project is a combination of tree planting and forest protection initiatives that have previously proved extremely successful.
In Costa Rica, the government has been paying farmers to protect forests near their farms. The project was among the five inaugural winners of Prince William’s Earthshot prize, which highlights creative climate solutions and comes with a 1 million pound prize.
As for the latest agreement, “it is unclear who has participated in the negotiations,” wrote Luciana Téllez Chávez, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Forest Deal should commit to goals that are more ambitious, rather than simply duplicate past pledges to end deforestation by 2030.”
More details on COP26 proposals are expected throughout the conference, including on Saturday, which is themed as “nature” day.
“I can’t think of anything we can do that’s not founded on nature’s processes,” said Partha Dasgupta, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Cambridge, also in the COP26 video. “If we jeopardize that, it’s not just our economies that are in trouble — our lives are in trouble.”