World leaders are gathering at the COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates to take stock of progress towards cutting carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. While much debate will focus on the energy sector, there is no route to net zero without tackling deforestation.
If deforestation were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter. At COP26 in Glasgow, 145 countries representing 91% of the world’s forests committed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. But pledges urgently need to be translated into action. The latest Forest Declaration Assessment shows that we are off track to halt deforestation and forest degradation by 2030.
Globally, almost all tropical deforestation is directly or indirectly linked to agricultural expansion. Previous research estimates that international trade and consumption of agricultural and forestry commodities drives approximately one quarter of forest loss in the tropical areas and about one third of tropical deforestation-related carbon emissions. Emissions result when carbon-rich forest, wooded savannah, peatlands and other natural ecosystems are cleared to raise livestock and grow crops and timber.
Trase quantified the emissions from deforestation and peatland degradation linked to the five globally traded agricultural commodities with the greatest impact on forests produced in six key countries: beef from Brazil; soy from Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia; cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire; and palm oil and wood pulp from Indonesia.
Overall, the results show that deforestation linked to the expanding production of these commodities generates emissions equivalent to 444 million tonnes of CO2 per year. If emissions from peatland degradation are added, this would increase to 701 million tonnes – more than the total annual emissions of Germany, the world's tenth-largest emitter in 2020.
Narrowing this down to the share of commodities that are exported, land conversion generates emissions equivalent to 120 million tonnes of CO2 per year. If emissions from peatland degradation are added, this would increase to 282 million tonnes – the equivalent of the total annual emissions of Spain, the world’s 29th largest emitter in 2020.
Action by consumer markets is urgently needed
China is the consumer country linked to by far the largest amount of deforestation and peat-related emissions, equivalent to 99.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year – more than the total annual emissions of Romania. Key sources of exposure for China are imports of wood pulp (48.5 million tonnes), beef (27.4 million tonnes), palm oil (20.5 million tonnes) and soy (3 million tonnes).
Imports by countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are linked to emissions equivalent to 25.3 million tonnes of CO2 a year – a larger carbon footprint than Croatia. This is mostly due to beef (14.3 million tonnes), palm oil (9.2 million tonnes), wood pulp (1.3 million tonnes) and cocoa (0.1 million tonnes). Emissions linked to India’s imports are similar at 24.8 million tonnes of CO2 a year, of which Indonesian palm oil makes up 90%.
EU imports are linked to yearly deforestation and peat-related emissions equivalent to 24.2 million tonnes of CO2. Key sources of exposure are Indonesian palm oil (16 million tonnes), Ivorian cocoa (5.2 million tonnes), Brazilian beef (1.6 million tonnes) and soy (1.5 million tonnes).
Countries urgently need to take action on greenhouse gas emissions linked to deforestation and peatland degradation driven by their growing demand for commodities, especially China. Countries could significantly contribute to reducing global emissions by acting on their supply chains in concert with efforts by producer countries.
Towards international collaboration on supply chains
If implemented effectively, legislation requiring due diligence on commodity imports and their links to deforestation, such as the EU’s new deforestation regulation, could be a major step in the right direction. It is likely to drive advances in traceability, identification and reporting systems across many commodity-producing sectors. This may offer useful experience for other importing countries when developing their own policy frameworks.
Yet the limited size of the EU market makes it clear that action is needed across a far broader range of importing markets. Recent signs suggest a growing interest by some Chinese stakeholders in addressing imported deforestation. In November, state-owned trader COFCO signed a US$30 million purchase order for soy from Brazil, which incorporated a ‘deforestation- and conversion-free’ clause for the first time. Clearer policy frameworks are needed to scale up such initiatives into systematic action.
Since importing markets share significant exposure to the same commodities, producer countries and trading companies, the field is ripe for collaboration. Governments can convene domestic and international cooperation among importing companies to establish shared frameworks for deforestation-free sourcing. Importing markets can also act jointly to provide finance and technical support for producer countries. Together they can assist producer countries in strengthening implementation of their land-use frameworks, providing appropriate incentives to stakeholders, and better monitoring of forest protection.