It is a hallmark of the plight and promise that characterize so many forests around the world today that the 2nd World Forests Summit organized by the Economist on 20 March set out to “unlock the true potential of forests” and tempted prospective delegates into “discovering the true economics of forests”. Plight, because the value (monetary or otherwise) and potential of forests is still largely unrecognized whilst they continue to be cleared from many parts of the planet. Promise, because forests play a critical part of the global climate system, support the livelihoods of millions of some of the world´s most impoverished people, and represent a hitherto largely untapped bio-based economy potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Unfortunately, contradictions and tensions exist throughout much of the debate on the future of the world´s forests – as illustrated by the case of biofuels in the Stockholm meeting. Chairing the Forest Summit, the Economist journalist James Astill questioned the EU Environment Commissioner about whether the EU biofuels policy was not “completely nuts” for failing to take proper account of environmental impacts. But as a counterbalance to such concerns, Yusof Basiron, Chief Executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, maintained that the people of Sarawak have a moral imperative to clear some forest for oil palm – seen as a major opportunity for economic development for many of its poorest citizens – and that this imperative could not be challenged by western nations that have pitifully little forest left of their own.
Such an uncompromising stance is a powerful reminder of the need for western governments and advocates of forest conservation to go beyond overly simplistic calls for zero deforestation targets and propose genuine opportunities for sustainable development that both promote forest conservation, and support the development needs and aspirations of those who need it the most. Reassuringly this proposition received wide support from gathered delegates, even from representatives of leading environmental NGOs.
Yet the Economist summit demonstrated that beyond such broad agreement, the future of the world´s forests, and why indeed we value and care about forests at all, remains deeply contentious. This was reflected by the near absence of debate around two of the issues that are most critical to “unlocking the true potential of forests”: biodiversity, and the dependence on forest resources of the livelihoods of millions of poor people across the planet. As happens all too often in debates around the world’s remaining forests, there was a lack of voices and evidence from the global south, home both to many of the world´s poorest people and to much of its biological wealth.
Presentations and debate at the Economist summit highlighted some emerging trends of both the opportunities and challenges that face the future of the world´s forests.
On the positive side the EU has committed to halting forest loss by 2030 or earlier. In the international arena, Thais Linhares-Juvenal from the UN-REDD programme argued that despite widespread disenchantment the REDD+ process has brought unparalleled political and economic attention to forests around the world. And while forest carbon finance remains in its infancy, we have only realised a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue that could be generated from a shift to a more diversified and innovative bio-based economy.
On a less upbeat note, despite the meeting being targeted towards the “economics of forests”, much of the discussion focused on the difficulties of developing and implementing strong and fair regulatory frameworks for forest governance. That said, concerns that forest governance can present an intractable problem for many developing and emerging economies were somewhat offset by the relative success story of Brazil. Here the Brazilian State Prosecutor, Daniel Azervedo, convincingly showed how a combination of political will and innovations in satellite monitoring technology have helped deliver a marked reduction in deforestation in the Amazon. In a similar vein, a strong message from the forest management sector was that the primary problem facing good forest governance is rarely a lack of regulation per se, but rather a lack of transparency with which regulations can be enforced and voluntary standards recognized.
Overall, a strong message from many in the business world was that a lack of risk-taking and innovation is hampering the development of more sustainable approaches to the conservation and management of the world´s forests. The audience of the Stockholm meeting heard repeated calls from forest owners, certifiers and NGOs alike for major industry players such as Swedish based IKEA to buy certified wood from the tropics. But currently, certified tropical forest companies find it almost impossible to compete against the flood of readily available illegal timber. The industry is in dire need of stimulation – especially at a time when much of the world´s remaining forest estate is being actively carved up into logging concessions that will determine how it is managed and exploited for decades to come.
But technical innovations in both forest management and the wood-products industry are not the only options. Roberto Waack, chairman of the board of a Brazilian company dedicated to timber production from reduced impact logging and plantations, argues that perhaps the most innovation is in the accounting mechanisms to incentivize more sustainable management approaches.
If there is one overarching message, it might be that the greatest opportunities for safeguarding the future of the world´s forests, and the countless benefits they provide for mankind, lie in holistic approaches that combine insights from science, policy, development and investment. Neither forests themselves, nor the legal or financial mechanisms that seek to support them, exist in isolation – whether physical, economic or political. Governments, bankers, forest managers and markets need to link up to ensure that supply chains work for, not against sustainability. Both opportunities and responsibilities need to be shared. As Anders Hildeman, the Global Forest Manager for IKEA, admitted, it is no good companies like his just “banging their fists on the table and demanding certified wood”, they need to get engaged and work as part of the wider industry.