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Everyone Wants To Save The Rainforest - On Paper

21/08/2015 15:20 BST | Updated 21/08/2016 10:59 BST

Last week Unilever's CEO Paul Polman called for forest protection to be centre-stage of any climate deal agreed at the climate summit in Paris this December. He is absolutely right to do so. Forests play a key role in regulating our global climate that must be recognised when world leaders meet in a few months to thrash out a deal.

Polman sees a critical mass of countries and companies vowing to stop rainforest destruction. He's right there as well. But these commitments are failing to deliver real change on the ground. If anything, the gap between rhetoric and action is growing.

Here is just one example.

Over 175 countries, companies and civil society groups signed the New York Declaration on Forests at the UN Secretary-General's Climate Summit last September.

They promised to replant 150 million hectares of rainforest, to sever the link between cash crop production and forest destruction, and to ensure that rural communities were not forced to choose between development and destruction - and all over the next five years.

But that was a year ago. The vision for forest protection expressed at the summit has yet to translate into action where it matters.

Indonesia is a stark reminder that there is a world of difference between declaring that you want palm oil that isn't tainted by forest destruction and being able to prove that your commodity supply is clean and driving responsible production and forest protection.

The Indonesian government, along with several key provinces and many of the major users, traders and financiers of Indonesian commodities, has signed the New York Declaration on Forests. Commodities traders jointly responsible for about 60% of the global palm oil market have published 'no deforestation' policies that are meant to exclude companies that clear forest from their supply chains.

Yet Indonesia remains the world's leading source of deforestation-related emissions. y And despite their commitments, palm oil traders have been caught sourcing from companies that are clearing forests in critical ecosystems like Gunung Leuser National Park, part of a UN-recognised World Heritage site.

Fine words and pledges will not protect the last rainforests. If businesses are serious about addressing the deforestation that has been done in their name then they will have to lead from the front.

Here are three things that progressive businesses could do now to kickstart a forest conservation revolution.

First, corporate leaders should acknowledge that individual 'no deforestation' policies are not yet translating into measurable forest protection. If the sector is serious about eradicating forest destruction for palm oil, the industry must work together and ensure that there is no longer a market for commodities produced by companies the clear forests and peatlands.

Here's how it would work. Instead of waiting for NGOs to unearth the skeletons in their supply chains, commodities traders could proactively monitor the companies they buy from. Traders could share mapping data and satellite technology to spot deforestation and identify who was responsible. Companies implicated in forest destruction could then be locked out of the market until the damage had been restored.

This simple approach has already proven to be an effective way to decouple soya production from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. There is no reason why it couldn't be just as successful in addressing forest destruction in Indonesia.

Second, progressive companies must face down an attempt by some elements of the palm oil industry to weaken forest and peatland protection standards.

The Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM) group, a coalition of palm oil producers and traders, is trying to undermine the High Carbon Stock Approach - a well-established and widely supported technical methodology that many companies now use to halt deforestation and protect tropical forests inside their concessions. The SPOM group have proposed their own, weaker definitions that would open the door to extensive deforestation by stealth.

This underhand tactic cannot be allowed to succeed. Unilever and other companies should keep forest protection standards high by backing the High Carbon Stock Approach instead of this industry greenwash.

Finally, companies that have benefited from a cheap commodity boom that cost us the world's forests should stump up the cash for large-scale restoration and conservation efforts.

Asia Pulp & Paper, once the target of any number of NGO campaigns, is restoring and conserving an area of forest equivalent in size to their plantations - one million hectares of rainforest and peatland. Companies that depend on agricultural commodities could make similar commitments. Jointly funding the restoration of forest equivalent to the size of their supply base would mean enormous areas of degraded forest restored to their former glory.

Restoration projects would also provide rural communities with development options that did not involve forest destruction. This global fund could also be used to help the smallest farmers get more crops from less land, reducing their need to clear forests.

Of course we need a strong commitment to forest protection and restoration to come out of the Climate Summit in Paris. But we must have action as well.