Tim Root sees Joe Biden’s election as a chance to boost international efforts to tackle deforestation

Recently measured methane releases in Siberia are an example of rising temperature causing feedbacks which worsen climate breakdown. This underlines the urgency of substantial emissions cuts. Campaigners must seize the opportunity of Biden’s election to boost action. The Johnson government is probably receptive to campaigns on this issue as it wishes to be seen in a good light at the November 2021 UN climate conference (COP 26) in Glasgow. At present some governments are talking about creating green jobs to revive the economy after the pandemic. We can push for Western governments to build a climate protection partnership with China. Xi Xinping has said that there needs to be a “green recovery of the world economy in the post-Covid era”. China is dependent on Western markets for its exports, and needs to counter world recession so its massive loans to many nations are repaid. Therefore it would probably want to join a green recovery agreement. Biden is committed to working for such a partnership.

The Democrats’ election platform states: “We will apply a carbon adjustment fee at the border to products from countries that fail to live up to their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.” This is a crucial commitment which, together with the equivalent plan of the European Union, could gain China’s co-operation as part of the resolution of Trump’s trade war. 

Green jobs needed urgently

We must recognise that, on balance, most governments are not building a green recovery. Most are devoting much more money to rescuing climate-damaging industry. Campaigns and petitions to “build back better” are currently not winning the breadth and extent of support needed. In order to get politicians to prioritise climate action, we need to build a broader campaign, bringing in many people beyond environmentalists. In this regard it is important to note that charities concerned with development and poverty have much higher incomes, and therefore support, than environmental groups such as Greenpeace. In addition, nature organisations such as WWF also have substantially higher incomes. A well designed climate campaign could draw in many people concerned with unemployment and poverty, as well as those whose chief interest is preserving nature. The huge international interest sparked by David Attenborough’s films shows that highlighting the value of forests could boost public support for sustainable development more widely. A 2019 EU survey (including the UK) found that nearly 90% agreed that “new laws are needed to ensure the products sold in European Union countries do not contribute to global deforestation”. A recent twelve-nation survey found that a majority of people agreed that more than half of the planet’s land and sea should be kept in its natural condition.

Repeated bad news of deforestation, with images of dreadful fires, would be likely to spread pessimism, sapping citizens’ and governments’ resolve to work for solutions to climate breakdown overall. Many people have heard that the Amazon is close to a tipping point at which it would start an irreversible decline from rainforest to savannah. This would reduce rainfall, hitting food production, thus affecting people throughout the world. There would be more fires with the release of the massive amounts of carbon currently safely stored in the trees. Annual CO2 emissions from tropical deforestation are currently equal to the total greenhouse gas emissions of the European Union, but would become much higher if a decline towards savannah led to greater fires. Therefore linking climate action with a renewed emphasis on preserving forests could both boost campaign strength and help reduce future climate damage. An effective slogan might be: Save Nature, Save Humanity! 

Save forests, stop pandemics

In addition, emphasising the need to prevent future pandemics could strengthen forest preservation considerably. Covid-19 is just the latest in a long list of diseases to have spread to humans from wild animals. Therefore it is important to curtail close contact between humans and wild animals, by preserving their habitat. One example is that deforestation is expected to displace nearly all south-east Asia’s bats by 2050, and they harbour massive numbers of viruses. This risk could enable campaigns to get wealthy nations to pledge much greater payments for forest preservation than the amounts promised in the past.

It is in our present situation, with many poor nations reeling under Covid-19 and close to defaulting on debts, that governments would be most likely to reach agreement on the conditions for improved trade and aid deals to help poor nations develop sustainably. This would include investing in renewable energy. Such deals should include forest protection. It is encouraging that China is bringing in a law aiming to stop imports of illegally sourced timber, while the UK’s Environment Bill aims to prevent import of any products obtained via illegal deforestation. However, much deforestation is not deemed illegal. Donor nations and multilateral institutions should partner with relevant nations to achieve forest protection agreements integrated with trade incentives and sustainable development aid. This would ensure that nations with large forests received regular substantial payments for verified forest protection which respects human rights. This process could be helped by partnering with the many organisations in the global south which seek to preserve forests and protect citizens from the pollution caused by mines and other industry being placed in them. One key organisation which might potentially join such a campaign is the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, which includes over 900 religious leaders from 125 countries.

Save the forest protectors

In September 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests was made by 40 governments, including the US, UK, and EU, 16 organisations of Indigenous peoples, 57 multinational companies, and other groups, who all pledged to “at least halve the rate of loss of natural forests globally by 2020 and strive to end natural forest loss by 2030.”

However, its assessment in September 2019 found that deforestation had “increased by 43%“, and that at least 164 forest and land defenders were killed in 2018. A further 212 environmental defenders were murdered in 2019. Campaigners need to make these murders notorious, as that of George Floyd is notorious. Those in power must know that there is a global movement standing up for the activists defending the places we must preserve if humanity is to avoid a future of disaster and starvation. Honouring environmental martyrs should be an intrinsic part of campaigns to preserve forests. If leaders knew they would face international disgrace if an environmental defender was killed in their country, risking important agreements benefiting their nation’s economy, they would become more motivated to ensure forest protection agreements were honoured. We can show them the disgrace they should avoid by also naming and shaming the bank bosses funding fossil fuels and companies profiting from deforestation.   

We can safeguard our future if we act urgently. Please contact any organisation to which you belong urging them to help establish an international coalition to protect forests and our climate.

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