With the 2014 Climate Summit behind us, environmentalists ponder: what about our forests?

I am an optimist. I celebrate the rescue of even a single pangolin despite knowing the species is critically endangered and that the odds of their continued existence are poor.  When I undertake a tree planting in Borneo, I will celebrate the planting of a mere few dozen critically endangered tree species, Shorea belangeran, even though it feels like the proverbial spitting of peas at the massive tank that is extinction.

That should have me pumping my fists in the air with the announcements this week at the United Nations Climate Summit 2014 in New York City. Signed by governments, non-profit groups and multinational corporations, the grand paper “New York Declaration on Forests Action Statements and Action Plans” – one of the seminal declarations to come out of the Summit – has been celebrated in too many news media sources to link here. But the key parts of the agreement are simply:

  1. A global timeline to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020 and strive to end it by 2030.
  2. The restoration of forests and croplands of an area larger than India (approximately 350 million hectares).

This reminds me of the much ballyhooed Kyoto Protocol, which was similarly celebrated worldwide when it was announced.  Yet that initiative died a miserable death in 2012 when it failed utterly and completely. While aiming for a 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions, the final results saw a 58 percent increase instead.

But that’s just me being pessimistic, right?

Smoke and fires from Sumatra
Smoke and fires from Sumatra. Slashing and burning to clear forests for agriculture. Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Flickr Creative Commons).

Yet why should I celebrate yet another grandiose announcement in the face of a long legacy of lavish policy disappointments?

While I have not yet gone through the whole list of signatories on the New York declaration, it does warrant a realistic look at what we know is likely to happen to forests globally from now till 2020.

Canada, which currently leads the world in forest loss, is determined to get its energy resources to international markets by building pipelines that would see the continued destruction of pristine areas.

Bolivia, which has already cleared a few million hectares in the past decade, wants to triple its food production, requiring an additional 7.78 million hectares of farmland (largely cleared from biologically rich forests). Dr. Robert Müller, a biologist from the Institute of Geography in Georg August Universität in Göttingen, Germany, insists simply that “No land without forest is available anymore.“

Brazil, which still owns some of the most biodiverse forests in the Amazon, refused to sign the New York Declaration entirely.

Peru did sign a deal with Germany and Norway at the New York Summit to protect its forests with cash contributions, but will this be the same sort of deal Indonesia signed with Norway? Forest loss remains high in the Southeast Asian country despite the moratorium on deforestation that was part of the agreement. And Peru recently has made some drastic changes to its official policies on its forests (to the aim of additional development and less protection), and one has to wonder if the offer of a few hundred million dollars will be enough for it to do an about turn.

Liberia also signed a deal with Norway for cash to slow down its deforestation. Prior to that, the country had already signed off well over half a million hectares to three big palm oil players. A comprehensive analysis on what palm oil could do to Africa’s rainforests can be seen in this report from Rainforest Foundation U.K.

Forests elsewhere on the planet face a similar onslaught of massive industrial plantations for, among other activities, palm oil and cattle ranching. And 2020 seems to be a buzz year in the world of deforestation politics.

Soil Crack
Soil Crack, caused by irresponsible palm oil harvesting. Photo courtesy of @orajoo (Flickr Creative Commons)

In Southeast Asia, two of the world’s biggest palm oil producing countries have ambitions rivaling that of Liberia for the year 2020.

Indonesia has repeatedly said it will create another 14 million hectares of palm oil plantations by 2020 in order to meet its targeted production. Not all 14 million hectares will be virgin forests, however; the World Resources Institute has indicated that there are millions of hectares of already degraded lands that are suitable for palm oil expansion. But forests make up the bulk of the land up for development.

Malaysia has also set the year 2020 as the target date to double its palm oil production. Much smaller in area than its sprawling neighbor, it’s hoping that more efficient methods of cultivation and processing will allow it to reach its target while limiting destruction of valuable forest land. Still, the Malaysian state of Sarawak has indicated it wants to plant an additional 800,000 hectares in their small state alone.

Watching the palm-oil-fueled economic boom in its Southeast Asian neighbours, the environment secretary of the Philippines, Ramon Paje, announced plans this year to plant 8 million hectares of palm oil on what he calls “degraded lands.” Opposition to these massive plans, however, show that it is impacting priceless biodiversity hotspots like the province of Palawan.

I do recognize the needs of developing nations to improve their standards of living (sometime at the cost of native forests), but it makes no sense to celebrate the New York declaration when it seems to be doing nothing more than stating the obvious. By 2020, there could be fewer than half our current forests still remaining as countries rush to make their quotas before deforestation bans and environmental agreements kick in. Any remaining forests after the 2020 cut-off date could disappear, as well, in the following decade. It’s easy to cut your rate of deforestation when there are no more trees left to cut down. And that is no cause for celebration.

–Robert Hii, Contributor, Voices for Biodiversity

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Changing Planet

Voices for Biodiversity (V4B) is an online conservation media magazine that shares the stories of people from around the globe in order to help all species survive and thrive together. The e-zine is a gathering place for those who believe that humanity’s health and well-being depend upon the health and well-being of other species and the ecosystems that support us all. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. The magazine’s goal is to alter human behavior in such a way as to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem in order to stem biodiversity loss and arrest the sixth extinction of species taking place in this time, the Age of the Anthropocene.