How Biden’s White House could supercharge the battle against deforestation

Insight / 24 Nov 2020

The president-elect’s promise of $20bn to protect the Amazon is welcome, but US leadership could be most decisive in targeting trade in forest-risk commodities like soy, palm and beef

As far as I can recall, tropical deforestation was never before raised as an issue in a US presidential election. Yet, although it was largely drowned out by the noise and acrimony of the campaign, Joe Biden did precisely that. The significance of this for the future of the planet cannot be overstated.

From the debate stage and in a series of media interviews, Biden made tackling the destruction of the Amazon a priority for his administration. “The rainforests of Brazil are being torn down” and “we’re letting it burn”, he warned. His solution? The US should lead the international community in raising $20bn to encourage the administration of Jair Bolsonaro to protect it, with the threat of economic sanctions should it refuse. This money would help support a rapid transition away from the destructive business-as-usual.

The president-elect’s unexpected focus on the Amazon reflects a powerful truth: that the planetary emergency we face is as much about our destruction of nature as it is about climate change. We cannot tackle either of these crises in isolation. Halting and reversing the destruction of tropical forests could offer up to a third of the solution to climate change. But it is also critical for protection of the biodiversity and vital ecosystems on which all our economies and wellbeing depend – including by minimising the risk of future pandemics.

Biden will enter office with the situation in Brazil worsening. Since his own election victory, in January 2019, Bolsonaro has systematically reversed a decade of hard-won progress. He has slashed funding for environmental protection, attacked the rights of indigenous people, and encouraged the expansion of agribusiness and mining into the rainforest. The result is soaring deforestation and the worst forest fires in over a decade. All this edges the Amazon ever closer to a catastrophic tipping point at which it ceases to be a carbon sink and becomes a major carbon source.

Bolsonaro’s rejection of Biden’s proposal was belligerent. But his environment minister, Ricardo Salles, previously responded to the threat of international boycotts by calling for funds of this magnitude to cover the “opportunity cost” of not developing the Amazon. One way or another, financial incentives will inevitably be part of the solution.
 
But this is a problem that is baked deep into our global system of trade. More than two-thirds of tropical deforestation worldwide is linked to the production of commodities like soy, palm oil and beef. These forest-risk ingredients end up in half the products in our supermarkets and attract over a trillion dollars each year in finance. It is in targeting these market forces that US leadership can be decisive.

First, the United States should follow the direction of travel in Europe by requiring companies to ensure their products and supply chains are not linked to deforestation. This could be done by building on the Lacey Act, which already bans the import of illegally trafficked wildlife, plants and timber. The focus should be not solely on tackling illegal deforestation, but also on stopping the import of goods from areas where weak legislation means that tropical forests are being legally cleared.

Second, the US should get behind efforts to create a new environmental reporting framework for the finance sector. Last week, the Federal Reserve included climate risk in its financial stability assessment for the first time. The incoming administration could build on this by making climate-related financial disclosures fully mandatory by 2025 at the latest, as the UK did last week. Better still, the US could leapfrog into a leadership position, championing a new global initiative that is creating a parallel framework for disclosing corporate impacts on nature.  
 
Third, Biden should bring trade and foreign policy to bear in his efforts to combat climate change and deforestation. The incoming administration should be clear that any future trade agreement with Brazil will be conditional on enforceable commitments to protect its forests and the rights of indigenous and local communities. No less critical will be engaging China, the world’s biggest importer of deforestation, with whom the president-elect worked closely to achieve the Paris Agreement. Now is the time to rediscover common ground, and take joint action on both climate and deforestation.

Finally, a key diplomatic objective should be to help raise the funds needed to tackle climate change. Rich countries mobilised $78.9bn of climate finance for developing countries in 2018, but that is still a long way off the $100bn a year target. But a change is also needed in where this finance is targeted. Despite their unique potential, forests currently receive only a tiny fraction of climate-related funding. Biden’s $20bn goal to enable a transition away from deforestation in the Amazon would be a tremendous start.

Of course, his environmental ambitions are likely to face stiff resistance at both the federal and the state level. But having the weight of the White House behind this agenda will turbo-charge action by the companies and investors already leading the way, and galvanise international cooperation ahead of next year’s pivotal climate summit in Glasgow.

And who knows? Come the 2024 presidential election, perhaps discussion between the candidates about how to protect the world’s rainforests won’t be considered a curiosity.

This article was originally published by Reuters Ethical Corporation.

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