Are zero-deforestation targets the best way to conserve tropical forests?

An orangutan climbs through the forest canopy in Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia
An orangutan climbs through the forest canopy in Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia © Joss Lyons-White

Joss Lyons-White, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership at the Grantham Institute, and Edward Pollard, Allison Catalano and Andrew Knight, who have recently published a paper in One Earth, consider the complexities of zero-deforestation targets and commitments, how to improve forest conservation, and how you can help tackle deforestation.

The destruction of tropical forests is a major global problem, and not only for charming forest creatures like orangutans. As much as a third of the world’s people depend on forests in some way for their livelihoods. Clearing forests to provide new farmland releases huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – so much so that deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change after burning fossil fuels. Tropical deforestation is also an important factor in the emergence of new infectious diseases with pandemic potential, like COVID-19. Globally, forests are being lost at a frightening rate. A football pitch of pristine forest was lost every 6 seconds in 2019.

Ironically, 2020 was supposed to be the year the world got on top of deforestation. Between 2008 and 2014, dozens of governments, companies and non-government organisations (NGOs) committed to achieving zero deforestation by 2020. However, many companies have lagged behind in implementing robust commitments to zero deforestation. Rather than being eliminated, tropical deforestation rates have increased in recent years.

Given the urgent need to stop deforestation, a zero-deforestation policy might seem like a no-brainer. But, given the collective failure of governments, companies and NGOs to achieve zero deforestation by 2020, might there be better ways to focus global efforts to conserve forests? Challenges with achieving zero-deforestation targets and commitments indicate it may be worth re-thinking how the problem of deforestation is approached.

What does “zero deforestation” mean?

Zero deforestation usually refers to commitments by companies to avoid clearing forests when producing commodities that lots of people consume every day. These include cattle products (beef and leather), paper, timber, rubber, soy, cocoa, coffee, and palm oil (found in all sorts of products, from shampoo to ice cream and pizza). Governments and NGOs have also set zero-deforestation targets. In 2008, WWF outlined a global ambition for “zero net deforestation” by 2020 – a target which 67 countries pledged to help achieve.

A long empty road going through a palm oil plantation in Liberia
A palm oil plantation in Liberia © Joss Lyons-White

Challenges with zero deforestation

Tropical deforestation is not a simple problem but is intertwined with other highly complex issues like inequality and poverty. Efforts to achieve zero deforestation – and challenges with attaining it – take place against this complex backdrop.

What zero deforestation means depends on how “forest” is defined. Different definitions of forest can have varying implications for the amount of land available for zero-deforestation farming. In Liberia, for example, the national forest definition may differ to some international definitions with respect to the criteria used to call an area a forest (for example, the number and size of trees, or the type of vegetation). This means areas that might be considered forest under international forest definitions may be viewed differently at the national or local scale. Progress has been made to address issues with definitions through international initiatives like the Accountability Framework Initiative. However, different forest definitions remain an important issue for countries that have lots of forest and depend on farming for economic development, and to potentially reduce poverty. These complex issues are discussed in more detail in our paper.

Some countries have also historically conserved more forests than others. For example, 88% of Gabon is still covered by forest (compare that with just 13% of the UK). However, zero deforestation requires countries to give equivalent protection to all forests, irrespective of how much they cleared in the past or how much they have left. This issue could be addressed by allowing limited forest loss in some places while forests regrow or regenerate in others, to avoid any loss of forests overall (so no net deforestation). However, this is highly challenging to do in practice, not least because it is difficult to ensure that the specific plants and animals, ecosystem functions and climate change benefits provided by a particular forest in one place can be recovered elsewhere. This problem highlights the potential challenge of ensuring zero deforestation is fair between countries.

The impacts that zero-deforestation policies might have on local, often poor, communities in diverse tropical forest contexts are also poorly understood. In some cases, zero deforestation might clash with traditional conceptions of forest use, or even restrict communities’ access to forest areas. Some forest conservation tools, such as the “High Carbon Stock Approach”, now include strict requirements for communities to be involved in conservation planning to avoid these problems. But precisely how zero deforestation might affect different communities in diverse tropical forest contexts still needs to be understood more clearly.

A village in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia. Lots of trees and a handful of small houses with a sheep and two people walking in the background
A village in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia, where palm oil has been targeted as a way to help alleviate poverty and there are also high levels of forest © Joss Lyons-White

Zero deforestation also emphasises forests over other ecosystems that may also be important, like grasslands and savannahs. This can lead to non-forest ecosystems being destroyed as governments or companies try to expand farmland without clearing forests. In Brazil, for example, rates of clearance in the Cerrado – a woody savannah ecosystem with many unique plants and animals – were 2.5 times higher than in the Amazon rainforest between 2002 and 2011. Some soy companies that have made zero-deforestation commitments have been linked with conversion of the Cerrado into farmland. This indicates zero-deforestation commitments may not provide adequate protection to non-forest ecosystems, and may even enhance their destruction (although this is difficult to prove definitively).

There are also practical challenges for companies with implementing zero deforestation. Global supply chains for products like palm oil and soy can be extremely complex. This makes it difficult to know precisely where products have come from – and if forests were cleared to produce them. Zero deforestation may also lead companies to source from areas at low risk of deforestation, leaving areas at high risk vulnerable to exploitation by other companies with no commitments.

Where do we go from here?

In our work, we identify and discuss principles that might support improved targets and commitments for forest conservation. For example, new international targets for forest conservation could avoid zero deforestation in favour of concepts that include other ecosystems as well. Some organisations, like the Tropical Forest Alliance, are trying to adopt new, more positive ways of framing forest conservation, like “Forest Positive”, that move away zero deforestation. Legislation is needed in both tropical forest countries, and countries that consume products from tropical forest regions, to help companies’ commitments to be implemented. Research is also needed to help understand the potential positive and negative impacts of zero deforestation on rural communities in diverse tropical forest contexts.

Dawn breaks over the forest in Borneo, Malaysia
Dawn breaks over the forest in Borneo, Malaysia © Joss Lyons-White

What can you do?

Everyone can help the deforestation problem by reducing their overall consumption of consumer goods, particularly products from tropical forest regions, such as wood products (timber and paper), cattle products (beef and leather), palm oil and soy, as well as coffee, cocoa, and rubber.

But it’s also important you ask what’s in the products you buy, and where they come from. Most retailers and consumer goods manufacturers provide detailed consumer information on their websites. Some NGOs, like WWF, also provide scorecards for consumer goods companies and brands. There are also organisations, like the Soil Association, that set higher standards for food production.

Finally, it is important for everyone to be aware that tropical deforestation is not a simple problem but is intertwined with other issues like inequality and poverty. This means that what may appear obvious solutions – for example, boycotting palm oil – are not necessarily ideal. Instead, looking for products certified to standards that support participation by diverse groups – like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – can support sustainable production in a way that recognises the needs of different groups of affected people.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases are huge, urgent problems. The notion of zero deforestation can seem like a simple, powerful way to address them all at once. However, while recognising the severity of the deforestation crisis, it’s important to consider its complexity. Deforestation occurs in diverse contexts, and ecosystems other than forests are also important. Recognising this complexity may help with the identification of fairer and more effective ways to conserve precious tropical forests.

We thank Lottie Butler and Neil Jennings at the Grantham Institute for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the blog.

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