Over the past decade, Norway has spent $3 billion to support efforts to keep forests standing in all of the world’s major rainforest countries, helping to elevate forest protection as a globally important cause (and climate solution) in the process.
But it’s time to take stock of what’s worked and what hasn’t, in terms of both tropical forest protection in general and Norway’s particular role in facilitating forest conservation, and chart a new course forward — that’s the premise of a new report from Rainforest Foundation Norway titled “Saving the rainforest 2.0.”
The report, released last week as hundreds of policymakers and conservationists met at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum hosted by Norway, identifies key barriers to stopping the destruction of the world’s forests and offers several recommendations for how the world can more successfully combat deforestation.
Incidentally, last week also saw the release of deforestation data from the University of Maryland in the U.S. that showed tropical countries lost 158,000 square kilometers (39 million acres) of tree cover in 2017. That’s the equivalent of deforesting an area the size of Bangladesh, marking the second highest annual rate of tree cover loss recorded since the dataset was first compiled in 2001, and it was primarily driven by land clearance for agriculture.
“As long as deforestation and forest degradation is happening at alarming rates, it is obvious that we’re doing some things wrong,” Øyvind Eggen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation Norway, said in a statement accompanying the release of the new report. “The world needs new ideas, better policies and more efficient use of financial resources if we’re going to win this battle.”
Though one of the top recommendations made in the report is for richer, developed countries to scale up international development aid as a means of increasing forest-climate finance, and for Norway in particular to commit to spending 4.5 billion Norwegian krone by 2021, the report lists several measures to protect rainforests that don’t require substantial new funding streams.
For instance, many countries have already pledged to support companies in implementing Zero Deforestation Commitments by signing on to the New York Declaration on Forests. According to the report, governments can do this by ensuring that products that don’t contribute to the destruction of forests have improved market access while restricting the market share of products that do generate deforestation. Currently, according to the report, international aid that could potentially have negative impacts on forests is 3.5 times higher than the available funds that support forest conservation and forest restoration.
“By using their purchasing power to buy only products from companies that do not aggravate tropical forest destruction, governments can help the most progressive companies substantially,” the report states. “Governments can also introduce import regulations and taxes to limit products that contribute to deforestation — and such measures could be introduced without requiring direct increases in public budgets.”
Anders Haug Larsen, a policy adviser at Rainforest Foundation Norway who edited the report, reiterated to Mongabay that “Public procurement policies and import and tax regulations must ensure preference of no-deforestation products. One example is to make sure that biofuels based on palm oil and soy are not accepted, as long as they continue driving deforestation and increase greenhouse gas emissions.”
The call for regulations to restrict biofuels from palm oil and soy is especially relevant for the European Union, Indonesia, and the aviation industry, according to the report, as they are expected to drive the greater part of demand for those biofuel feedstocks. Indeed, the EU recently announced that it would be phasing out palm oil from motor fuels by 2030, much later than its initial self-imposed deadline of 2021 — a move that Nils Hermann Ranum, head of the policy and campaign department at the Rainforest Foundation Norway, called “totally unacceptable.”
In an article included in the report, Dr. Chris Malins, an expert in low carbon and clean fuels policy, notes that over the past two decades biofuels have come to be seen as a sustainable answer to the question of how we decarbonize the transport sector, in large part because it’s widely believed that the most effective course of action is to reduce fossil fuel use at all costs. But, Malins points out, when it comes to agriculture and land use, the best course of action might actually be to protect existing carbon stocks.
“Unfortunately, when the biofuel is made from palm oil, the attempted cure accelerates the disease, by increasing rainforest deforestation and driving land-use change related greenhouse gas emissions,” Malins writes. “With the right regulatory action undertaken now to refocus and rescale biofuel policies, millions of hectares of threatened rainforests and peatlands could still be saved.”
Recommendations for forest countries
Meanwhile, subsidy reform is one of the chief actions the report suggests that forest countries should take — and donor countries like Norway should make subsidy reform a requirement of any post-2020 bilateral agreements they sign with forest countries, the authors of the report argue. Reforming subsidies and policies to ensure that they are not helping drive deforestation would in turn support forest countries’ efforts to meet the goals of initiatives founded under the framework of the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program, or REDD+.
The success of REDD+ has been limited, to some extent, by being framed as a way of paying people not to do something — in this case, cut down forests. But it’s important that forest protection be recognized as a “promising development option for mobilizing finance from the wider economy,” Larsen told Mongabay. “Subsidy reforms is an important part of this, and donor countries like Norway should facilitate these efforts through new bilateral agreements.”
Charlie Parker, an independent land use consultant, writes in an article included in the report that “Countries where subsidy reform would benefit the REDD+ process are numerous. Indonesia, for example, now accounts for 53% of global production of palm oil, and has subsidies throughout the supply chain that directly and indirectly contribute to land-use change. These include credit subsidies, government guarantees, tax concessions, and a price floor on biofuels; unless these are reformed, it is difficult to see how Indonesia can meet its REDD+ targets.”
Other recommendations for rainforest countries made in the report include the need to “prioritize securing land rights for indigenous and other forest-dependent communities, and support plans for the sustainable management of these areas,” as well as a call for forest country governments to “develop regulations and financial incentives for forest restoration.” Natural recovery and regeneration should be the priority of forest restoration efforts, and should be done with the full participation of local communities, per the report.
The private sector has a role to play, as well, of course. Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of the NGO Mighty Earth, writes in a paper included in the report — and published here on Mongabay in full last week — that the forest conservation cause may now “depend on the very companies most responsible for environmental destruction” to be the solution. Hurowitz adds: “I suppose we’ve come to a pretty sorry pass if we’re depending in significant measure on these corporations to get us out of this mess. But it’s the pass we’re at, and there’s actually reason to hope that the same companies that got us into this mess can get us out.”
Hurowitz points to the success of the Brazilian Soy Moratorium at halting Amazonian deforestation for soy as a model that can be adopted in other ecosystems and for other commodities.
Another key solution is to give more attention to protecting the most valuable and intact primary forests that the world still has standing, Larsen told Mongabay.
“Prioritizing intact, primary forests has so far not been a key element for REDD+ in general, and also for Norway, but this is vital to sustain the ecosystem services that forests provide. To achieve this, all support for large-scale logging in intact and primary forests must end. Rainforest countries should develop land-use plans that protect the remaining primary and intact forests, and not allocate such forests to industrial scale logging. Donors like Norway should support such efforts and avoid supporting programs or projects that stimulates industrial scale logging in these areas.”
‘Too much forest has been lost the last 10 years’
Larsen said that Norway’s efforts over the past decade have been crucial to pushes “at the highest political levels” for world governments to recognize the need to conserve rainforests, which ultimately led to forest protection becoming a core component of the Paris Climate Agreement. He also said that Norway’s support helped make the Amazon Fund an important vehicle for reducing deforestation and helped raise awareness of the need to secure indigenous peoples’ rights as a key element of forest protection in most rainforest countries.
Despite those successes, however, Larsen added that “far too much forest has been lost the last 10 years, so we are not where we should be. It’s obvious that Norway is not the main country to blame for that, but REDD+ — including Norway — had for a long time a too narrow focus on carbon accounting, preparing for a carbon market that never emerged.” He suggested that “focusing more on the importance of forest protection for lasting development and the broader social and environmental values could have generated more political will in rainforest countries to protect forests, which we believe is still a main barrier.”
A recent report by Norway’s Office of the Auditor General had some sharp criticismsfor the country’s International Forests and Climate Initiative (NICFI), one of the chief funders of REDD+ initiatives around the world. While Larsen said that he thinks it’s wrong to criticize Norway for the lack of other donors, as the Auditor General’s report did — “Such a critique should be directed at other countries,” Larsen said — he does agree that that lack of funding from other sources hampered results. “This is why we identify new sources and solutions, such as subsidy reforms and import restrictions on products that contribute to rainforest destruction,” he noted.
“The Auditor General concludes, as we do, that changing political priorities in rainforest countries stops or delays measures and results,” Larsen said. For example, after deforestation rates declined in Brazil throughout the 2000s, tree cover loss has increased markedly in the country in recent years, due largely to farmers burning forested land for agricultural purposes. Mikaela Weisse, a research analyst at the World Resources Institute, said that people who clear land using fire are taking advantage of weak enforcement of laws that prohibit fires and deforestation, as well as the current administration’s efforts to roll back environmental protections. Larsen and the authors of the “Saving the rainforest 2.0” report suggest that in cases like these, where political winds have shifted, Norway prioritize support to projects that can help create and maintain political will to tackle the causes of deforestation.
“The Norwegian contribution of 500 million USD a year is a lot compared to other such support, but small compared to the turnover of the industries that drive deforestation,” Larsen said. “Transforming agriculture practice in agriculture dependent countries is a major challenge, but the stakes are too high to not try our best. I think the Norwegian effort will maintain at high levels, at least until 2030, as promised by our current government. But I do expect some changes, at least after 2020 when most of the bilateral agreements end and Norway are in a position to include new solutions.”