The long road to ‘zero deforestation’ … whatever that means

One year after the New York Declaration on Forests was signed, the challenges are becoming clear – as are the opportunities.
La Declaración de Nueva York sobre los Bosques 2014 se fijó una meta audaz: un mundo sin deforestación. Pero no estableció un plan que indicara cómo lograrlo.Foto CIFOR.

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A year ago today, the New York Declaration on Forests set a daring goal: a world without deforestation. But it didn’t lay out a plan for how to get there.

The agreement – to cut deforestation in half by 2020, and eliminate it entirely by 2030 – was signed by 30 national governments, 50 private companies, and many nongovernmental organizations and indigenous peoples on 23 September 2014 during the United Nations Climate Summit in New York.

Over the past 12 months, governments, NGOs and corporations have tried to find answers to the many questions the declaration left open-ended.

“The pledge is very new, but there’s been significant work done over the last year on addressing a number of the implementation issues,” says Steven Lawry, Director of Forests and Governance Research at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

What exactly does zero deforestation mean? Some argue that the pledge should aim for ‘zero gross deforestation’, which means no forested areas are cleared to make room for a commodity, like palm oil, paper and pulp, beef or soy.

People are very worried about the impact it will have on smallholders.

Sophia Gnych

An alternative is ‘zero net deforestation’, in which companies can clear forests but must offset their actions by planting or restoring forest elsewhere.

“Although this approach might make sense from a landscape perspective, the trend is for zero gross to be applied, partly because it is more straightforward. But some pledges plan to go beyond and add restoration to the package,” says Romain Pirard, a senior scientist with CIFOR, and co-author of a recent analysis of zero deforestation commitments in Indonesia.

Once foresters agree on standards, they face the monumental task of finding a way to implement them on the ground. And because development in forested areas is key to economic growth in many poor areas, any plans to reduce deforestation must also keep the livelihoods of local people in mind.


In Indonesia – the leading supplier of palm oil and the country with some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world – that tension has led to resistance from the national government, which is concerned about how protecting forests will affect both the country’s economy and its poorest residents.

“There are a lot of districts and subdistricts in Indonesia that are still very poor. These plantations are arguably an efficient way for the government to deliver investment in the area,” says Sophia Gnych, a Research Officer with CIFOR.

“Plantations provide roads and employment, and in some instances schools, electricity and health care facilities,” she continues. “There are few alternatives for those communities if their areas aren’t allowed to be developed.”

While Indonesia’s national government signed the New York Declaration (along with provincial governments in Aceh and Central and West Kalimantan), it has since opposed efforts to stop unsustainable oil palm plantations. Earlier this summer, top government officials criticized a pact known as the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) for working outside the government’s authority and potentially harming small-scale farmers.

The national government has even made new efforts to support the palm oil industry, including increasing the blending quota for biodiesel (to 15%) and supporting this through subsidies.

“On the one hand, the government is creating policies to support the industry, which is made up of almost 50% smallholders,” says Gnych, “while the commitments appear to be trying to undermine it.”

“Stakeholders aren’t on the same page yet. Definitions and methodologies for achieving sustainable palm oil production have not been agreed upon, so the discourse is very antagonistic,” she adds.

“People are very worried about the impact it will have on smallholders. I think the government needs to see a clear and socially equitable plan for delivery that doesn’t threaten government revenues from the industry or rural development,” says Gnych.


While political will may lag behind, the market is shifting heavily toward supporting more sustainable development.

“The private sector will be key to reaching a zero deforestation goal,” Lawry says.

The shifting architecture of global forest governance is being driven by these corporate commitments.

Steven Lawry

Greater consumer desire for responsibly produced goods, combined with NGO advocacy against corporations with unsustainable practices, has made investors wary of backing projects that aren’t socially and environmentally conscious.

That means the market for sustainable investments continues to grow. In 2014, it reached $21.4 trillion, up from $13.3 trillion in 2012, according to Lawry. That growth provides a strong incentive for companies to sign on to pledges like the New York Declaration, and to see their commitments through to the end.

“It’s a new day,” Lawry says. “The shifting architecture of global forest governance is being driven by these corporate commitments.”

The creation of IPOP, which also took place at the UN Climate Summit, represented a big change in Indonesia’s palm oil market. The international companies that signed on, pledging to produce palm oil without destroying forests or violating human rights, make up 80 percent of Indonesia’s commercial palm oil production.

This gives them great power to change the way palm oil is produced there.

That pledge, along with the New York Declaration and the existing Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), all provide strong support for moving toward more sustainably produced commodities. But they also result in a complex set of goals that will need to be integrated in order for zero deforestation to become a reality.

“All of these different standards and ideas about what sustainable production should look like makes it a lot harder,” Gnych says. “Moving toward a clearer, workable definition of sustainable production in relation to deforestation is something that’s got to be debated and resolved.”

For more information on this research, contact Steven Lawry at s.lawry@cgiar.org or Romain Pirard  at r.pirard@cgiar.org.

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