Is Zero-Deforestation an Effective Strategy for Achieving Climate Goals?

3 minutes read

With climate change at the forefront of policy and industry discussions following the release of the 2018 IPCC Special Report, the impact of deforestation is, once again, in the spotlight. Over the past few years, hundreds of businesses have announced plans for zero-deforestation sourcing (Nepstad 2018), and countries, such as Costa Rica, Vietnam and Mexico, have implemented policies directly targeting deforestation, including payment for ecosystems (PES) programs, which “provide financial compensation for environmental protection” (UN Environment 2018). While some success has been achieved in both reducing deforestation and increasing reforestation, the fact remains that approximately 10% of global heat-trapping emissions are still due to deforestation (Union of Concerned Scientists 2013). This brings up the question: is zero-deforestation an effective strategy?

In order to effectively answer that question, several aspects must be considered. First, most research tends to agree that there are four major drivers for deforestation: soybeans, palm oil, cattle and wood products, with some estimating over 50% of tree cover loss is due to the agricultural industry (Brack 2019). It is, therefore, implied that achieving zero-deforestation will have a negative economic impact on the agriculture industry, a view that many farmers, businesses and farm-based communities share. In that sense, for this strategy to be truly effective, the transition towards more sustainable agricultural systems must be rewarded, which is where the aforementioned PES systems come into play. In countries where governments have mandated PES systems, emissions due to deforestation have reduced dramatically, in contrast with countries without PES systems, such as Brazil, in which anti-environmental backlash within the agriculture sector has ramped up over the past decade (Nepstad 2018). 

It’s also important to note here the significance of government intervention with respect to the effectiveness of zero-deforestation policies. Other than setting up rewards systems for farmers and businesses, governments must also work to reduce, and eventually eliminate, illegal deforestation, which accounts for almost half of forest clearance (Brack 2019). This is vital on both ends of the economic spectrum. On the supply side, in addition to the various national government policies and PES programs, organizations such as REDD++ and the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility provide rewards for developing countries’ deforestation efforts. On the demand side, this includes zero-deforestation sourcing commitments by businesses, or on a larger scale, government laws banning illegally sourced, imported agricultural products, such as the Lacey Act in the United States. Biofuel policies may also be beneficial here, as a significant portion of land is being cleared for biofuel use, which could be restricted by and/or prevented on both ends of the spectrum.

Another important aspect to consider when assessing effectiveness is how we measure deforestation and reforestation. Currently, there is no universal approach, and as such no consensus on how to evaluate progress. The UN Environment lists two common approaches: High Carbon Stock Approach and the High Conservation Values Approach and recommends using both in parallel; however, by its own admission, many businesses and countries use one or the other, or their own approach, and as such, the efficiency of zero-deforestation policies may be difficult to gauge. This also includes the ways by which potential leakage and permanence are accounted for. For example, the extent of leakage, which refers to the greenhouse gas emissions that are relocated outside of the project boundary (World Bank Group Open Learning Campus 2018), is completely dependent on the boundary dimensions, meaning that without an exact, agreed-upon definition, the efficiency of a certain zero-deforestation policy can simply be increased by adjusting the project boundary. Similarly, permanence, “the persistence of emission reduction and removal as a result of a project over time” (World Bank Group Open Learning Campus 2018), must be ensured within zero-deforestation commitments so as to ensure their effectiveness. Blockchain technology may be highly beneficial here, as including it will ensure transparency and accountability on a global scale. This could include using blockchain to track deforestation using real-time satellite imagery as well as create supply chain networks for materials and/or products originating from forests (such as palm oil), amongst various other uses (Hirbli 2018). 

On a final note, can we truly achieve effective zero-deforestation without a drastic change of lifestyle? Without combining the above-mentioned policies with a change in our current food and living habits, sustainable production practices may not be enough to ensure zero-deforestation. Thus, it can be concluded that achieving zero-deforestation may not only require a swift change in our governance policies and assessment systems, it will also require a radical change in our lifestyle in the long-run.