By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA - Meeting a landmark target to slash by at least half losses of natural forests by 2020 is likely to be "impossible", as deforestation has soared in the five years since it was set, warned a report on progress towards the goal.
The 2014 New York Declaration on Forests garnered more than 200 signatories among countries, companies and green groups, including the governments of Colombia, Norway and the United States and consumer goods giants such as McDonald's and Walmart.
Nonetheless, the world lost more than 26 million hectares of trees - an area the size of Britain - each year from 2014-2018.
That represented a 43% jump in the global rate of tree loss compared with the period 2001-2013, said the report issued on Thursday ahead of a U.N. climate summit on Sept. 23.
Tropical forests accounted for about 90% of global deforestation from 2001-2015, it added.
Their annual rate of loss rose by 44% in the 2014-2018 period, largely due to land being cleared to produce agricultural commodities such as beef, soy and palm oil.
The plight of rainforests has stormed up the global agenda in recent weeks, as forest fires rage in the Amazon and the Congo Basin and a U.N. climate science report backed forest protection as a key pillar of action to curb global warming.
Forests store heat-trapping carbon, play an essential role in producing rainfall and cool their local climates.
But the emissions released when they are destroyed by burning or felling spur rising temperatures, which in turn increase the threat to forests.
"The world is on fire... The vulnerability of the forests has become obvious," said Charlotte Streck, co-founder and director of Climate Focus, a think-tank that led the report.
"We seem to be in an age where there is a lot of talk and not enough action," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While large campaigns to plant new trees have been launched from Asia's Mekong Delta to El Salvador and Ethiopia, Streck said those cannot make up for loss of natural and old forests.
"They harbour a lot more biodiversity, they are much richer in carbon, they offer all these ecosystem services in a much more complete way than restored forest," she said.
The report also evaluated other goals in the New York declaration, finding that less than one-fifth of a pledge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020 had been achieved in the past two decades.
In addition, it said none of the 350 most influential companies whose operations affect forests was on track to fulfill commitments to make their supply chains free of deforestation by 2020.
In general, corporate commitments were too weak to be effective, rarely covering all supply chains, and there was too little reporting on actions taken and their impact, it added.
Justin Adams, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance, which works to remove deforestation from supply chains, said far better tools had become available to monitor and tackle the problem on the ground, including satellite imagery.
But it was the job of governments, not businesses, to enforce laws against illegal forest clearing, he added, urging closer collaboration.
Streck said that despite the gloomy evidence, an international push should be launched in New York this month to renew promises to protect the world's forests, and try to join up the many actions now taking place.
The New York declaration's longer-term goal of striving to end forest loss by 2030 was still feasible, researchers said, as deforestation could be halted fast with the right policies.
"We're losing the battle, but we shouldn't give up hope," said Craig Hanson of the U.S.-based World Resources Institute. "We need to re-energise commitment, action and financing."
Indonesia has been a bright spot, Streck noted, where government bans on clearing peatland and on new concessions for logging and plantations have been complemented by more palm oil companies earning certification for sustainable production.
Other measures that would help on a global scale include regulating demand, as already seen with laws in the United States and Europe to prevent trade in illegally logged timber, the report said.
It also called for more international funding to stop deforestation in tropical countries.
Investments to that end comprise less than 1.5% of all money allocated by multilateral institutions and developed states since 2010 to curb climate change, it said.
Streck also urged reforms to the hundreds of billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies given around the world each year, to ensure they do not support activities that harm forests.
Ingrid Schulte, who coordinated the assessment, pointed to a failure to transform underlying economic incentives that favour forest destruction over forest protection.
"Halting forest loss will take a serious systemic shift in behaviour - from everyone - by reducing demand for commodities that carry embedded deforestation, reducing meat consumption, and investing in governance and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples," she said in a statement.