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Why forests hold the key to halting irreversible climate change


Authored by Hannah Hislop

Over the past two weeks, nations have been meeting at the UN’s Climate Change negotiations (COP23) in Bonn, Germany, to drive action on tackling climate change. One important talking point has been the hugely damaging impact of deforestation. We asked Hannah Hislop, our Global Advocacy & Partnerships Manager, about the issue and what must be done.

A river winding through the rainforest

About the author

headshot of Hannah Hislop smiling

Hannah Hislop

Hannah is part of Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Office, which drives
transformational change on the systemic issues where we have the scale,
influence and resources to make a difference. She works on eliminating
deforestation from our commodity supply chains by 2020, focusing in particular
on palm oil and soy.

What role do forests play in the climate change debate?

Without forests, achieving the Paris Agreement goal – of keeping global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees, and ideally 1.5 degrees – will be impossible. Eliminating emissions from deforestation and promoting forest regrowth could reduce global net emissions by up to 30%.

However, last year the planet lost a chunk of forest the size of New Zealand, an increase of more than 50% on the previous year. Forest fires – including an unusually high number in tropical rainforests – appear to be a driving factor.

What will happen if we do nothing?

Forests are being lost or degraded because of increasing global demand for agricultural commodities like palm oil, soy and beef. Together, commodities like these are now the leading cause of global deforestation – much of it illegal. Activities like mining are also leading to substantial forest loss.

Many people will naturally mourn the loss of majestic forests, and the astonishing biodiversity they harbour, in their own right. But we also fundamentally rely on the ecosystem services they provide, not least water and climate regulation – both of which are vital to global food production.

Rainforests like the Amazon currently act like a vast carbon sink. But scientists warn that after a certain deforestation tipping point is reached, it will rapidly turn into a carbon source. This will severely impact both regional and global water cycles and, consequently, food production, which already needs to increase by up to 50% to feed our anticipated world population of 9 billion by 2050.

What can we achieve if we take action?

We know it is possible to have a world in which protected forests help to sustainably increase food production. But there is no silver bullet solution. We need many complementary approaches that add up to a complete transformation of how we use land.

For example, smallholder farmers contribute approximately 40% of Indonesia’s palm oil production, but their yields are far lower than those of commercially-managed plantations. With better support, skills and financing, those farmers could be helped to dramatically improve their yields and livelihoods – on the condition that they do not encroach further into the forest.

Forests are home to millions of indigenous people who often suffer violence or are forced off their lands. And yet more traditional community management of forests could offer a key to curbing emissions. We have seen this in the Amazon, where deforestation rates are five times greater outside indigenous territories and conservation units than inside.

Governments have a huge role to play, as do businesses, to shift the vast sums of money (around $780 billion) currently flowing into the sectors that drive deforestation, instead towards conservation and restoration.

I think some of the most exciting things are happening at a local level, where forward-thinking sub-national governments are starting to see the benefits of green economic development. These include creating jobs, improving food security and reducing poverty. Inspiring examples include the Brazilian states of Acre and Mato Grosso, the Malaysian province of Sabah, and Central and East Kalimantan in Indonesian.

What is Unilever doing to protect forests?

Together with others in our industry, we have committed to achieving zero net deforestation associated with four commodities – palm oil, soy, paper and board, and beef – no later than 2020. And we have extended this commitment to our tea businesses. Our particular focus is on palm oil where, as the world’s largest single buyer, we have the scale and influence to make a difference.

Our approach has three elements: transforming our supply chain, so what we buy is fully traceable and certified sustainable; encouraging the whole industry – from growers and traders, to manufacturers and retailers – to set and meet high standards; and working with governments and other partners to embed no-deforestation pledges into national and international policies.

What can other businesses and individuals do?

Businesses can work to better understand if and how their supply chains are driving deforestation, and join the growing number committed to tackling it. This is not a solitary exercise. Groups such as the Consumer Goods Forum and platforms like the Tropical Forest Alliance exist to bring companies together to jointly find solutions, in partnership with government and civil society.

Individuals can help too. As citizens, by asking their governments to recognise the immense contribution that forests make to the climate change solution, and to put in place the legal, policy and financial frameworks that will protect them. And as consumers, by putting pressure on businesses to tackle deforestation in their supply chains.

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