Every 6 seconds...
an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is cleared.
At least one million species of plants and animals are now close to extinction, and they are becoming extinct at 100 times the normal rate. Tropical forests (including rainforests) are perhaps the most important setting in the extinction equation. Covering just 10% of the earth’s land surface but supporting more than two-thirds of the world’s biodiversity, they are threatened by agricultural expansion for the everyday commodities we all demand, like soy, beef, palm oil, cocoa, coffee, paper, rubber and timber. Most of us contribute to this situation, through products we buy or through the investments we hold (such as our pensions).
Biodiversity is towards the top of the international agenda right now. 2020 marks the end of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, a series of 20 objectives set in 2010, at the beginning of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity. But none of those targets have been met and the situation is now more precarious than ever.
The UN Summit on Biodiversity
In the lead-up to the UN Summit on Biodiversity on 30 September 2020, 64 global leaders (as of 29 September 2020) have signed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
The Leaders’ Pledge for Nature
Sections relevant to land use, commodities and supply chains that negatively impact biodiversity:
4.b Supporting sustainable supply chains, significantly reducing the impact on ecosystems caused by global demand for commodities and encouraging practices that regenerate Ecosystems;
4.c. Shifting land use and agricultural policies away from environmentally harmful practices for land and marine ecosystems and promoting sustainable land and forest management to significantly reduce habitat loss, unsustainable land use change, deforestation and fragmentation, achieve land degradation neutrality and maintain genetic diversity;
9.d Improving the efficiency, transparency and accountability in the use of existing resources, including through co-benefits, finance tracking and reporting frameworks.
If world leaders are not able to “put nature and biodiversity on a path to recovery” as they intend, the degradation of natural ecosystems and the vital products and services they provide will have profound consequences for human wellbeing globally.
“Part of this new [post-COVID] agenda must be to tackle the twin global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss in a more coordinated manner, understanding both that climate change threatens to undermine all other efforts to conserve biodiversity; and that nature itself offers some of the most effective solutions to avoid the worst impacts of a warming planet.”
— UN Secretary General António Guterres
What causes biodiversity loss?
Climate change, pollution and the illegal wildlife trade all contribute to pushing species to the edge of extinction. However, the biggest single cause of biodiversity loss is land-use change, which includes human activities such as unsustainable hunting and logging, or urbanization. The land-use change with by far the biggest negative impact on biodiversity is deforestation to open up land for farming.
Large-scale and unsustainable deforestation, as currently practiced in parts of the Latin America tropics – leads inevitably to species loss – from the biggest apex predators to the smallest insects and other microfauna. Soils become degraded as primary (native and old-growth) forest is cleared, and the vegetation upon which ecosystems are built can be lost: currently one in four plant species worldwide are at risk of extinction.
Pasture – primarily for beef production – takes up most of the newly deforested land in Latin America, where Trase focuses much of its current work. The Brazilian cattle sector alone is estimated to account for one fifth of all commodity-related deforestation across the tropics. Trase estimates that in 2018 the expansion of pastures was responsible for 81% of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, over 95% in the Paraguayan Chaco and 54% in the Cerrado.
But the picture is more complex than a simple push for more pasture for beef cattle. Trase has looked at the dynamic pressures affecting land-use changes. For example, a moratorium on land clearance for soy plantations in the Amazon since 2008 has led to soy displacing former pastures, indirectly causing more deforestation by encouraging new clearances for fresh pasture.
“We take the customs data, the shipping data and, for the first time, we connect them all together and ask who is buying from hotspots where we are really losing biodiversity. Trase has enabled us to identify the main drivers of biodiversity loss: soy, cocoa, coffee, palm oil and beef.”
— Toby Gardner, Director of Trase
The increasing impact of deforestation
Good work is being done in many places throughout the tropics, and annual deforestation rates have dropped across much of Latin America. However, the environmental impact of continued forest clearances grows as these valuable biomes become smaller. One hectare of deforestation today represents a far greater loss than would have been the case a decade ago: species are more concentrated, and the remaining forest becomes even more valuable as a refuge for biodiversity.
Fires are a growing problem for biodiversity in some regions. Bushfires tore through Australia in 2019 and 2020, burning around 97,000 square kilometres of vegetation – an area roughly the size of Portugal.
One study has suggested that because of the fires, 14% more vertebrate species could now be threatened with extinction. And in the Pantanal – which stretches across Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia – 23% of the biome has already been affected by ongoing fires in 2020. The precise effects on biodiversity are not yet clear, but are likely to be severe: this vast wetland ecosystem is home to thousands of species, including jaguars, anteaters and migratory birds.
Trase — Transparency for Sustainable Economies
Trase is a science-based supply chain transparency initiative, built around an open-access information platform. The vision of Trase is to empower companies, financial institutions, governments and civil society in the transition towards sustainable commodity production and consumption. Trase is revolutionizing the transparency of global trade by connecting consumer markets to their impacts on the ground at scale.
Trase breaks down the problems, and points to solutions
Trase featured in the BBC documentary Extinction: The Facts in September 2020 – presented by Sir David Attenborough. The film illustrated how Trase maps the ‘hotspots’ in the system – the small number of locations where deforestation is particularly acute, the handful of commodity trading firms that dominate markets or the consumer countries that drive demand. By doing so, Trase shows that targeted action – combining regulatory pressure with private-sector leadership – can make a big difference to slowing biodiversity loss.
For instance, Trase research has found that Chinese imports of Brazilian beef are growing rapidly, and are expected to rise further, placing extra pressure and risk on Brazil’s forests. But the silver lining is that a small number of changes could have an enormous impact: engagement with only a handful of trading firms and local authorities in Brazil could significantly reduce the deforestation risk of China’s imports, and help it to meet its commitments under the China Sustainable Meat Declaration.
Similarly, the EU imports large amounts of soy from Brazil, mainly to be used as animal feed. Trase has found that more than half the soy deforestation risk linked to Brazilian exports is concentrated in just 1% of the soy-producing municipalities. For French buyers of soy, this means that if transparency were increased in just 12% of the soy-producing municipalities in Brazil, it would allow them to see what was happening on the farms in the areas where 90% of the deforestation for soy production occurs.