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COP28 Delivers Call for Global Action on Forest Protection

COP28 in Dubai
COP28 in Dubai

In the frenzied final hours of this year’s climate negotiations, as leaders clashed with a few remaining laggards over the existential need to phase out fossil fuels, there was a less visible, but profoundly consequential, diplomatic tussle over nature’s place in climate mitigation. Ultimately, more than 190 countries didn’t just bring down the curtain on fossil fuels–they also enshrined a new era of equitable, global ambition on the protection of the world’s climate-critical forests.

Amid the unprecedented language on ending the era of fossil fuels, world leaders also coalesced around the urgency of halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030 to keeping alive the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. With the text’s inclusion of forest degradation alongside deforestation, the international community is stripping away the veil over industrial logging in northern forests and its significant emissions, creating a pathway for action on forest protection defined by equity and accountability. 

For years, international forest governance has been defined by a hemispheric divide between North and South. The divide, riven by the near-exclusive policy focus on “deforestation” and the Global North’s manipulation of the term’s definition, has enabled northern countries to channel focus on the tropics while effectively writing off the impacts of northern industrial logging–the single largest driver of tree cover loss in the world. 

The result is an insidious legal fiction that, when the Global North clearcuts a forest for industrial logging, that stump-filled, uncanopied field of debris, churned soil, and the scars of logging roads is somehow still a forest. In Brazil or Indonesia, razing an irreplaceable primary forest for products like palm oil or soy constitutes deforestation. But in northern countries like Canada, Sweden, and the United States, clearcutting a forest for products like toilet paper, biomass, and lumber receives a different moniker–sustainable forest management. 

This definitional limitation makes the term “degradation” an essential companion to deforestation. Degradation captures what deforestation doesn’t: logging’s erosion of an ecosystem’s value. It encompasses irreparable impacts of the loss of high-integrity forests on climate, species, and ecosystem services, no matter the driver or geography.

A clearcut in Quebec, which is not considered deforestation. 

Now, the need to eliminate those impacts is enshrined in the Global Stocktake, the UN roadmap to avoiding catastrophic climate change. 

With an eleventh-hour insertion, the Global Stocktake takes the commitment of 145 countries in the 2021 Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use and embeds it in the global mandate for climate action. This clear call to halt forest degradation, alongside deforestation, puts the Global North on notice that the decades of obfuscation, definitional workarounds, and double standards have no place in climate policy.

This also includes addressing foundational flaws in how the international community has approached accounting for emissions from industrial logging. Through unbalanced, inconsistent forest carbon accounting practices, countries have effectively written off the sector’s significant contribution to annual greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada, where the government’s own numbers show logging constitutes more than ten percent of the country’s emissions portfolio, the sector enjoys a reputation as a carbon-neutral industry.

The only way to comprehensively address the impacts of forest degradation is to ensure that global forest carbon accounting transparently and accurately reflects industry’s impact on forests’ carbon stores. That means putting logging’s footprint on the ledger books.

COP28 also ushered in the era of joint, synergistic action to address climate change and biodiversity collapse as inextricably linked crises.

Shortly before the negotiations entered their most critical stage, more than 15 countries, including the United States, Brazil, Canada, and Colombia, signed a new Joint Statement on Climate, Nature, and People that commits to aligning and integrating climate and biodiversity targets and plans. The Joint Statement brings the targets and principles of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (KMGBF), finalized last year, into the climate fold. From there, the KMGBF found its way into the Global Stocktake, calcifying the link between the historically bifurcated UN biodiversity and climate conventions. 

For forests, the KMBGF’s integration is a meaningful step toward turning platitudes and latitudes into concrete, rigorous action. Action on forests has, for years, vacillated between exculpatory tree planting pledges and real commitments, like the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration, that focus on nature protection as the most effective, immediate means of preserving ecosystems’ value for the climate. Foregrounding ecological integrity as its own metric of climate ambition makes clear that there is no substitute for protecting the forests we have left.  

Whether forests thrive or wither in their newfound prominence, however, will come down to an element that still has not found its proper place in the climate policy biome—accountability.

Without remedying the foundational flaws that define every facet of how the international community talks about forests, from terminology to narratives around sectoral responsibility, new words will simply meld into and reinforce the medley of impunity that, for decades, has dictated where and how we assign responsibility. COP28’s outcome makes it all the more vital that countries establish a Glasgow Declaration Accountability Framework, supported by the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment and more than 100 organizations, to drive truly global action on forests, defined by common standards and equitable implementation that moves from a system of North-South patronage to one of real partnership.

COP28 has put in place the norms, standards, and concepts to deliver on the protection of the world’s climate-critical forests. Now, a true paradigm shift will require countries to embrace this vision in their own policies and actions. Just like the phase-out of fossil fuels, it will require the elimination of false narratives and globally inequitable standards. It will necessitate transparency and partnership, alignment and cooperation. The bar is set and the stakes clarified. Now, it’s time for accountability.

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