Deforestation on Brazilian soy plantation

COP26 must commit to eliminating deforestation

World leaders attending the UN climate talks in Glasgow must commit to stopping commodity-driven deforestation if they are to prevent climate catastrophe.

27 Oct 2021

Vivian Ribeiro

Photo credit: Brazilian soy plantation // Marizilda Cruppe

At the UN climate talks (COP26) in November, it is hoped that countries will present ambitious and actionable carbon reduction plans that limit the increase in global temperatures to 1.5℃ and avoid the worst impacts of climate change from extreme weather, rising sea levels and biodiversity loss.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, calculates that the world will pass that important threshold by the early 2030s.

Stopping deforestation is one of the most important ways to cut carbon emissions, especially for countries in tropical regions in Asia, Africa and South America where levels of forest loss are highest.

Emissions from deforestation

For example, Trase calculates that from 2012 to 2016, land use change in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil released 5,812 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, measured as the equivalent of carbon dioxide (CO₂e). This figure represents the gross emissions from the total carbon stored in the vegetation in Argentina and Paraguay Chaco, and the Brazilian Amazon, Cerrado, Pantanal, and Atlantic Forest biomes.

Deforestation is being driven by the production of agricultural commodities such as soy, beef and palm oil for export to China, Europe and the UK as well as for domestic consumption in producing countries. Forest and other natural vegetation is cleared – often by fire – to create pasture and croplands. When the land becomes degraded, yet more virgin forest and savannah is cleared.

Deforestation threatens the financial stability of agriculture and the economies that depend on it. In Brazil, the agricultural sector generated more than 24% of the country’s GDP accounting for around $1.44 trillion in 2020. Crop failures due to droughts, wildfires and other climate change-related disasters are likely to become more frequent and severe as global temperatures increase, putting this sector at risk.

Cerrado and Chaco are most threatened

The Amazon lost an average of 622,800 ha every year from 2010 to 2019, while the Cerrado lost 918,800 ha over the same period, according to Trase analysis based on official Brazil data.

However, these figures understate the urgency of the situation in the Cerrado. With an area of less than half of the Amazon and only 54% of its native vegetation remaining, deforestation in the Cerrado is happening at a rate more than four times faster than in the Amazon, when considering the ratio of the deforestation to the existing native vegetation. Every additional hectare that is lost has a greater impact on the integrity of the ecosystem that remains.

The numbers are even more shocking in the Paraguayan Dry Chaco, which is being deforested to create new farmland, mostly for beef but also soy. For every hectare of native vegetation in this biome, 0.018 ha has been deforested – a rate that is almost ten times faster than in the Amazon. This means that for every 100 ha of native vegetation, almost 2 ha was deforested on average every year.

Net-zero deforestation is not enough

The last decade has seen a boom in governments, companies and financial institutions making deforestation elimination commitments. However, many interpret this to mean ‘net-zero deforestation’, which allows the continued clearance of forests in one area as long as an equal area is replanted elsewhere.

The problem is that emissions caused by deforestation cannot be directly compensated for in this way. A recent study in the Amazon shows that carbon fixation in secondary forests is only twice that in primary forest – much lower than expected – meaning that forests remain sources of carbon rather than sinks. Primary forests and native vegetation also provide vital ecosystem services, such as climate regulation and habitats for wildlife which cannot be replaced by replanting new forests.

Preventing deforestation and cutting carbon emissions in absolute terms should be the number one goal for governments, companies, banks and investors. In addition – and not instead – action should be taken to restore and replant native vegetation to compensate for past damage, mitigate climate change and provide livelihoods for local communities.

Trase is supporting businesses and policymakers by mapping the trade and financing of commodities linked to deforestation. These tools can be used to understand the risks of exposure to deforestation through supply chains to inform engagement activities and to highlight the opportunities to support sustainable agriculture. COP26 is a crucial moment for world leaders to put eliminating deforestation at the heart of their carbon reduction plans.

To reference this article, use the following citation: Ribeiro, V. (2021). COP26 must commit to eliminating deforestation. Trase.

For more information about COP26, visit Global Canopy's COP26 Hub.

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