Urgent need for clarity on fuzzy “zero” deforestation targets

iStock_000021968539MediumTargets set by governments and others to cut deforestation can be misleading and might not save as much rain forest as intended, undermining the fight against climate change, scientists say in a review published on Thursday.

About 13 million hectares (32.5 million acres) of forest were cleared annually between 2005 and 2010, mostly for agriculture, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, with about two-thirds of the loss occurring in tropical forest countries.

As global demand for food and resources grows, governments, companies and NGOs have set zero- deforestation targets to try to curb forest loss. But the definitions are often ambiguous and can lead to unintended consequences such as carbon-rich natural forest being cleared and replaced with newly planted forests, the authors say in a commentary in the journal Science.

“Until targets are clarified, and metrics agreed upon, zero may mean nothing at all,” say authors Sandra Brown, director of ecosystem services at U.S. environmental services firm Winrock International, and Dan Zarin, programme director of the Climate and Land Use Alliance.

Targets for reducing deforestation are important because forests are at growing risk of being chopped down for agriculture to feed increasing global demand for food and resources. But they need to be urgently clarified and adapted to each country, the authors say, to ensure greater accountability.

Efforts to save forests are a key part of two-week U.N. climate talks that began on Monday in Warsaw, Poland. Forests help fight climate change by soaking up billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while cutting them down accounts for about 10 percent of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions. About one billion people depend on forests for livelihoods and clearance creates poverty and violent conflict with companies and governments.

The problem is there are a variety of targets that have been set but many are not transparent. Some specify “net deforestation,” others “gross deforestation,” while some do not specify at all.

For instance, Brazil has pledged to cut gross deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent by 2020 from historically high levels in 1996–2005, while Peru has set a target of zero net deforestation of primary and natural forests by 2021. Indonesian paper and packaging giant Asia Pulp & Paper this year said it would halt all natural forest clearance as part of its new forest policy but has not elaborated on the target.

Cutting down natural forest and replanting it is not a like-for-like solution. Natural forests have greater richness in terms of species, higher carbon stock and provide benefits such as water storage for rivers.

“You can’t ‘net out’ deforestation by planting trees — a problem inherent in many of the current targets — because newly planted forests are far less valuable for carbon, biodiversity and forest-dependent people than standing native forests,” said Zarin, a tropical forests specialist based in Washington.


Net deforestation is based on losses from deforestation and gains from forest regeneration and/or tree plantations over a set period of time. But setting a target of zero net-deforestation can make the mistake of equating the value of reforestation with that of protecting native forests, the authors say.

Many consumer goods companies have committed to zero net-deforestation targets as a metric for sustainability. But Brown and Zarin say this is like setting fuzzy production or revenue targets that would enable those responsible for delivering on them to engage in accounting tricks if they come up short. The implications could be significant when dealing with growing demand for commodities by major corporations.

For example, the Consumer Goods Forum has committed to achieving zero net-deforestation by 2020. The forum’s 400 members include some of the world’s top retailers and manufacturers, such as Unilever, Carrefour, Coca-Cola and Nestle, which combined have more than $3 trillion in annual sales.

Gross deforestation, which the Brazilian Space Agency INPE has measured annually for the Amazon since the 1980s, counts only the loss of native forest over time caused by conversion to non-forested land. That widely reported Amazon deforestation statistic helps keep Brazil accountable to the targets it sets.

By contrast, there has been enormous ambiguity about the definition of deforestation in Indonesia, home to another large bloc of rapidly disappearing forest. Historically, official deforestation statistics there have been confused and suspect, leaving plenty of room for accounting tricks and little accountability.

A gross deforestation target of zero for some nations or regions, particularly developing nations still with large forest cover, would be unrealistic because it does not allow for any expansion of infrastructure or agricultural production, say the authors.

The solution is to set separate, ambitious targets for reductions in gross deforestation and for reforestation, they say, rather than sweeping one-size-fits-all goals.

More developed rainforest nations, such as Brazil or Indonesia, can meet ambitious targets to curb forest loss, particularly for commodity production in which more efficient practices and better use of existing cleared lands means less need to clear forests.

“At the global level, a zero deforestation target means much more than what is achievable if the meaning is ‘gross’, and much less if the meaning is ‘net,’” say the authors

(David Fogarty writes about climate change and the environment and is a media adviser for the Climate and Land Use Alliance.)


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