Geopolitics of the World’s Forests: Strategies for Tackling Deforestation Études de l'Ifri, June 2021
Deforestation continues at a worrying pace worldwide, except in temperate and boreal countries. It is caused by the race for land, underpinned by population growth and rising global demand for “deforestation-prone” products. Moreover, with climate change, mega-fires are now posing unprecedented threats to forests.
China has a major influence on the evolution of the world’s forests through its trade and investment in infrastructures for the Belt and Road Initiative. The country has stopped the exploitation of its natural forests, but it is using imports to meet its huge timber needs, while its demand for agricultural products carrying risks of deforestation is also growing, such as soybeans and palm oil. In Africa and Southeast Asia, large European forestry firms are in retreat, given the expansion of Asian firms (from Malaysia, China, and Vietnam), and agribusiness firms are gaining influence everywhere.
Major reforestation operations are, at best, of limited effectiveness when they are not accompanied by the recognition of land rights, and when they lead to monoculture plantations with fast-growing tree species. By contrast, independent certifications appear to be essential tools for forest management and ensuring zero-deforestation production. Finally, the United Nations’ REDD+ mechanism pays countries that reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, or that increase their carbon stocks through plantations. Yet, REDD+ is criticized because it relies on reference scenarios: the anticipated emissions paths presented by the countries themselves. Moreover, it always faces the problem of the “non-permanence” of carbon storage in forests or plantations that may burn or simply die.
At the same time, companies’ growing concerns to offset some of their emissions has generated strong demand for carbon credits from forest projects. Hundreds of “REDD+ projects” have emerged, relying on specific certifications to support the issuance of carbon credits in “voluntary markets.” This entails risks of double-counting emission reductions at the national level. Moreover, the uncertain additionality and the risks of “leakage” (shifting deforestation pressures elsewhere) cast doubt on the environmental integrity of these private initiatives. Finally, the success of “REDD+ projects” remains conditional on taking into account the problems of land security of rural inhabitants, a key factor in reforestation, and in their access to land.
While institutionalized consensuses continue to pile up, there is in fact an urgent need to reconsider existing instruments, taking into account systemic and political economy questions which are too often ignored. The 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) is scheduled to take place in China in October 2021, and needs to participate in the necessary leap forward on global forest governance:
- The principle of “results-based payment” (RBP) should be complemented by broad support for the investments needed to “produce” these results. It should only retain the coherence of public policies that have real potential impacts on forests as an essential criterion for assessing results.
- The demand for products linked to deforestation must be strictly controlled. Governments should review trade agreements with countries that encourage land-forest conversion and include measures to tackle deforestation that are legally binding. Imports of products involved in illegal deforestation must be banned, and tariffs must favor products certified as involving zero deforestation.
- Developing countries should be helped to implement incentive-based environmental taxation to support agricultural production based on zero-deforestation and sustainable forests. Fiscally neutral bonus-malus systems could favor traced and certified production and penalize production whose origin is uncertain and presumably unsustainable.
- A common agenda for food security, tackling deforestation and restoring degraded natural ecosystems needs to be built with developing countries. Ecological intensification through peasant-farmer agroecology, crop-livestock associations and agroforestry should become priorities. Necessary investments could be channeled through programs of payments for ecosystem services (PES).
- Finally, the forest concession regimes must evolve to include the recognition of overlapping rights, the commercial management of new resources and the sharing of profits.