By Elizabeth Kahurani
One would have thought that President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change accord would dampen morale and weaken resolve to implement the global climate deal. On the contrary, this action has spurred a positive counter effect. While expressing disappointment at the decision, leaders across the globe have reiterated their commitment to the Paris agreement. Industries, large corporations and business groups have shown leadership and solidarity by announcing move to attain cleaner energy and measures to integrate sustainability with business.
This is a moment that has projected a collective, spirited will by actors at different scales and sectors to deal with one of the fiercest threat facing humanity. The research community and environmental multilateral bodies should not lose this moment. There has never been a better opportune time for evidence to provide a cohesive, succinct framework to inform and guide raring intention and action for the environment.
When entities pledge to integrate sustainability in their production processes, is it clear to them what this entails and the road map to get there? Can they be sure that the options they choose will reflect an actual contribution towards local, national and global targets to reduce emissions and limit global warming to less than 2oC? An inventory of certification programs and standards needs to be carried out to ensure accountability and ascertain that pledges are not just empty talks and claims of contribution to climate goals can clearly be substantiated.
A recent study published in ETFRN News 58 points to issues reflective of challenges with some accounting standards. With the title, Deforestation-free claims: scams or substance? the review article cast a spotlight on zero deforestation initiatives and argue that either entities maybe using this as a branding tag to look good while skirting around the issue; or some are sincere but not aware of gaps within multilateral regulations that limit the extent of intervention results, and or may not have at their disposal the nuts and bolts to cover all ground for credible claims.
Below three broad ways to enhance accountability for zero deforestation claims are expounded.
1.Provide a clear standard definition of forest
Ideally, zero deforestation means that no forests are cleared and the land on which they stand is not used for any other purpose. To determine if this threshold is met, one must then answer the question -what is a forest? And that seemingly obvious question is a puzzle, and a complicated one at that.
You see, the standard FAO reference of forest definition -Forest includes natural forests and forest plantations. It is used to refer to land with a tree canopy cover of more than 10 percent and area of more than 0.5 ha. -is loose, open to varying interpretation and largely depends on how a country decides to define their forest within these parameters.
For example, plantations like oil palm meet the definition of forest, despite the environmental degradation and destruction of critical habitat associated with such monocultures.For argument sake, what if an entity claims to have not changed land use as they acquired land with existing plantations? Can this be sound basis to claim zero deforestation? Experts argue that historical footprints should be accounted for. ‘History cannot be turned back and historical land cover change must be accepted. The cut-off date of past forest conversion is a key detail in any standard.”
In addition, it would be important to apply the chain of custody concept to land. Normally, the concept is used by certification programs tracking a product ecological footprint across the value chain –all transport and transformation stages of a product. When used in land ownership transfers and concessions, it would mean that ecological responsibility is carried on from past to future buyers.
2.Ensure problem is not displaced through leakage
Current claims to zero deforestation are pegged on preservation of natural forest with high conservation value. This leaves room for entities to carry out deforestation of other planted forests and trees while claiming to be deforestation free. Studies have shown that deforestation outside controlled zones can result in carbon emissions that offset carbon stored in these protected areas.
There is also the case of self-regulating industries choosing to be selective depending on consumer demands and awareness. They retain products that they can justify meeting certification standards while selling controversial products to markets that are not environmental conscious.
More evidence of leakage is in cases where countries increase their forested areas but to keep up with consumption demands import agricultural produce from other countries. These countries from where produce is sourced in turn meet this increased demand by clearing forests to expand land for produce. Countries importing these produce in a sense have displaced their carbon footprint to exporting countries, thus carrying what the experts refer to as emissions embodied in trade.
To address this, consumers are urged to be aware, scrutinize and boycott products that are not ecologically sound beyond their borders. Such individual contributions can seal any leakage sipping from national commitments and contributions to deal with climate change.
3.Consider Landscape Certification
The UN climate change framework accounting systems are supply based, which is reflected in labels for deforestation-free products that largely aim to attract consumers. But this delineates the product from all other drivers and actors it might be linked to at the landscape. In Vietnam, for instance, forest land converted for coffee is classified as degraded but this classification does not apply to other land uses in the same landscape.
Experts recommend demand driven accounting system determined by human population and its per capita emissions, and an evaluation of a product’s emission based on its life cycle analysis. An important reflection with certification programs is whether they really promote a holistic behavior norm along the entire production chain or narrowly focus on excluding non-certified products.
These issues can best be dealt with in a comprehensive approach that moves from just product certification to certification of large landscapes from where products are sourced.