Will the Glasgow declaration on forest succeed where New York failed?


The recent COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (UK) resulted in a plethora of pledges, commitments and declarations including agreements to “phase down” unabated coal and “phase out” fossil fuel subsidies; reduce methane emissions by 30%; increase the ambition on “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) by 2022; produced a joint US – China bilateral collaboration declaration and reaffirmed the place of an international carbon market in tackling climate change – amongst many more announcements. It also produced the “Glasgow leaders’ declaration on forests and land use” which pledged to:

halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation”.

Importantly for our work here at the AgriUT Foundation the declaration recognises the dependence of smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples and local communities on forests and their key role in their stewardship. To support the declaration finance commitments totalling $19.2 billion were made which included $1.7 billion for indigenous and local communities support. 

This declaration is a welcome progression toward a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It recognises the crucial importance of forests and the many ecosystem services they provide such as carbon sequestration and storage, biodiversity and habitat, soil health, countering erosion and desertification, micro climate stabilisation, medicines and the social and cultural importance of forests to indigenous and local communities. However, for those that have been following the global approach to forest protection the 2014 New York declaration on Forests will be ringing in their ears. Here commitments were made to halve natural forest deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030 and to restore degraded forests equal in size to India. That progress report card would have a big red “F” for fail as deforestation rates around the globe have increased since the declaration and climate change exacerbated wild fires have decimated large forest areas, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Is the Glasgow declaration destined for the same outcome as its predecessor or does it have the right ingredients to make it successful? Let’s take a look at a few differences. Firstly (using analysis provided by Rhett Butler from Mongabay.com), a much larger number of countries have signed up in Glasgow, 141 compared to 39 in New York. New signatories include Russia, Brazil, China, Papua New Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo which represent 1.4 billion hectares of tree cover plus a further 76 million hectares of tropical forests (which hold an estimated 50% - 80% of the world’s plant and animal species). In total, the Glasgow declaration covers 90% of global tree cover (3.5 billion hectares) and 85% (858 million hectares) of global primary tropical forests. New York covered 39% of both tree cover and tropical forests (1.5 billion hectares and 391 million hectares respectively).

Secondly, public awareness of climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation has grown significantly since the New York declaration in 2014. Activist actions such as climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Climate Movement have served to mobilise large parts of society. Non-government organisations (NGOs), civil society and some religious sectors have also lent their voices to the issue. The results of which are a much greater consideration of people and planet by consumers of their purchasing decisions. Companies and governments are reflecting this societal attitude shift and are moving policies and strategies towards greater social and environmental responsibilities alongside those of commercial and economic importance. Supply chain tracking that identifies origins and impacts of products has come into prominence and ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) company reporting is scrutinised by institutional investors and pension funds in a transition from traditional to ethical investments. In some part, this move is driven by the growing judicial component of activism as courts around the world are asked to rule on matters of climate justice and the responsibility of institutional investors to account for climate risks and impacts on nature.

Thirdly, there are stronger links between climate change mitigation and natural solutions. Most of the emphasis on climate change mitigation after the 2015 Paris Agreement was focused on emissions reduction. Electrification and renewable energy took centre stage to displace fossil fuel based energy. Lesser emphasis was placed on climate change adaptation and CO2 drawdown. The realisation that a level of climate change impact is already unavoidable and the rise of net-zero targets by 2050 that seek equilibrium between emissions and atmospheric CO2 extraction have positioned forests as the go-to nature based drawdown solution. The carbon offset market has also received much attention, both positive and negative but the recent COP26 established the rule book on an international carbon market and this economic policy tool seems set to be a dominant aspect of valuing the world’s forest assets. Credits generated by stopping deforestation or reforestation actions may have a place within the Glasgow newly assigned funding but the detailed interaction of the new carbon market rules with the Glasgow declaration remain to be seen.

Lastly, international pressure is greater on climate change and the protection and regeneration of forests. COP26 overall saw a greater collective collaboration on climate change and the COP26 US-China collaboration announcement specifically included efforts to sop deforestation. In recent years, country net-zero commitments have come from China and India and the US has again joined the Paris Agreement. The global prominence and focus on issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change have highlighted the criticality of international collaboration. 

While much remains to be seen on the effectiveness of the Glasgow forest declaration the international landscape is very different from that of the New York declaration in 2014. Increased public awareness, activist pressure, ethical investment flows, ESG aligned company strategies and intergovernmental ambition all combine into an environment conducive for success.

The AgriUT Foundation works to support last mile communities in achieving economic, social and environmental prosperity through a unique combination of organisational capability, smallholder community experience and blockchain technology platform. By cultivating the potential of last mile farming communities to produce nature-based carbon credits through agroforestry and soil carbons, a number of the UN SDGs can be addressed. For last mile communities, carbon credits represent an increase to incomes and a diversification from reliance on agricultural single-crop incomes. The flow on from this is local economic stimulus. As the smallholder farms of local communities contribute major proportions of global food supply (up to 80% for Sub Saharan Africa and Asia) the economic viability of these communities is critical. The Glasgow declaration on forests and land use also recognises the important role that last-mile communities play in the stewardship of the World’s forests – a most critical part of nature.