Every day, we see another article about forests disappearing in the Amazon. This coverage shines light on a significant global problem that is only intensifying. With all the bad news, I was especially energized to attend the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA 2020) Annual Meeting last week, where around 200 passionate people gathered to promote a forest positive future.
On the evening of Sunday, October 28th, Brazilian citizens solidified the decision that Jair Bolsonaro will be the country’s next president. Often called “tropical Trump,” Bolsonaro’s stated agenda has massive implications: during his campaign, he promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, shut down the Ministry of Environment and open up the protected indigenous lands to mining and industrial agriculture. In the week before the election, he walked back on some of these statements, but the overall sentiment doesn’t bode well for our climate—or for your company.
As someone whose professional goal is to promote forests as a valuable part of the climate solution, I am incredibly disheartened by this news. But I also know that when policymakers cut back, companies can be a powerful force for environmental protection.
So if mitigating forest loss is part of your company’s sustainability goals, here’s what you need to know. Read more
Walmart and Unilever made big news at this week’s Global Climate Action Summit. With forest loss still on the rise (the highest levels of tropical tree cover loss occurred in the last two years), these two consumer-product giants just committed to taking big, concrete steps toward addressing the complex reality of global deforestation.
At the center of their commitments are critical actions in support of jurisdictional approaches, which encourage companies that source deforestation-related agricultural commodities to collaborate with local governments, communities, and producers in their sourcing region. Through these collaborations, jurisdictional approaches ensure that local laws, regional efforts, and corporate policies work in concert to reduce deforestation across entire landscapes.
Companies with forest goals coming due – and there are hundreds of them – should take note, for three big reasons:
Over the last 15 years, an impressive number of companies have set ambitious forest targets in their supply chains. As of September 2017, more than 470 companies in the food and agriculture sector have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. The Consumer Goods Forum – a group of 400 global companies with over $3.1 trillion in assets – for example, pledged to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.
Supply Chains: vital to tackling deforestation…
Leadership within corporate sustainability continues to reach new heights as companies innovate to catalyze more progress. Early sustainability efforts focused on philanthropy. Next, companies embraced the business value of engaging in operational efficiency, such as efficient use of water or energy.
The current wave? Supply chain engagement: realizing that the bulk of their environmental impact comes from outside their operational walls, leading companies are reaching back across the chain to suppliers and producers to drive improvements.
Companies and non-profit partners still have a lot of work to do to determine how to adequately engage in continuous improvement across a supply chain and measure performance in a transparent way. But even if they solve this puzzle, it isn’t sufficient to tackle our biggest, hairiest environmental problems—like deforestation.
In the deforestation space, direct supply chain engagement is vital to manage corporate risks and catalyze improvements. But any company that attempts long-term supply chain engagement on their own typically creates a situation in which individual farms are reducing forest loss, but the landscape around them is still filled with rapid deforestation. Imagine “islands of green” in a sea of deforestation.
…but what’s the next step?
But, on this Agriculture Day, we want to recognize and celebrate the farmers and ranchers while acknowledging the fact that we all play a part in the growing of food. In just a few decades, there will be two billion more people to feed on the planet. As a global community our challenge is to feed this growing population sustainably without depleting the soil, polluting our water and worsening global warming.
The statistics are eye opening. Globally, agriculture and forestry account for:
- 33% of the world’s GHG emissions
- 70% of the world’s water consumption
- Around 75% of tree cover loss
- 50% of global top soil loss
What’s behind these huge numbers? When we look deeper, the problem looks different depending upon which side of the equator you’re on. From row crops to rainforests, here’s a snapshot of what’s happening, both in terms of the problem and the solution:
When we think about how we will feed an additional 2 billion people, improving yields will be critical to meet demand. Fertilizer is an essential nutrient that will help to increase the yields we need. But with less than half of nutrients applied each season being actually absorbed by crops, the unused fertilizer is bad for the planet:
- US food production accounts for 75% of nitrous oxide emissions and has contributed to the pollution of nearly 40% of US drinking water supply;
- Excess fertilizer and pollution is washing off of farm fields and into water ways degrading coastal ecosystems and causing algae blooms.
At the same time, this also hurts farmers financially. Fertilizer represents their single biggest input cost, so when nearly $420 million in fertilizer washes off Midwestern farm fields and into the Gulf of Mexico every year, it’s tough to remain profitable.
[Tweet “Eating food has hidden costs: the power of partnership in reducing the impact of our food supply chains”]
EDF’s work* with Walmart, Smithfield Foods, Campbell’s Soup, Land O’ Lakes and other food companies is proving that efficient fertilizer use reduces supply chain emissions and saves money. It just needs to happen more: when food companies, retailers, and other supply chain actors send the demand for scientifically based and economically viable strategies for using fertilizer more efficiently, sustainable practices will expand and far less impact will be placed on the environment.
Agriculture and Deforestation
Agriculture is the largest single cause of deforestation. Everyday forest lands in Brazil and other tropical countries are burned down to grow crops or to create cattle pastures for beef production. The exploitation of the tropical forests for the big four agricultural commodities, palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper, contributes significantly to climate change.
Tropical forest loss accounts for about 15% of global carbon emissions annually. Hundreds of major consumer goods companies have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains.
The challenge is twofold: how to increase agricultural production in these tropical regions to support the livelihoods of local communities and growing global consumer needs, while fulfilling companies’ zero-deforestation commitments to reduce carbon emissions?
The solution lies in multi-stakeholder engagement. Brazil’s experience shows that collaboration between companies, government agencies and local communities within a region can successfully reduce deforestation while maintaining robust growth in production. The country successfully reduced Amazon deforestation by about 75% from 2005 to 2013.
When executed properly, these jurisdictional approaches provide win-win-win opportunities. Companies have a new way to meet zero deforestation commitments in supply chains by sourcing from lower risk areas and reduce the risk that deforestation will spread to other suppliers. Governments have additional support to improve policies and productivity in their regions. Farmers have the needed incentives and assistance to increase sustainability and profitability on their lands.
Partnership is the key
So it’s clear: our food has costs beyond our wallets, in the form of greenhouse gases, water quality, water scarcity, biodiversity, and other important impacts that we don’t see each day when we sit down at the table.
But the good news is, there’s a lot of movement—or potential for movement— across the food supply chains, from retailers to growers to consumers, to promote sustainable practices on a multitude of food and agriculture issues.
To tackle these costs, everyone along the food chain needs to realize that there is no free lunch (pun very much intended):
- At EDF, we are working in collaboration with farmers, companies, governments, and other NGOs to address these issues and reduce the impact of our food supply chains.
- Companies (including: food companies, retailers and other supply chain actors) need to consistently send the demand signal to farmers that they want less deforestation and more efficient fertilizer use.
- Consumers play an important role by sending our own demand signal for more sustainably produced food by thanking the companies leading the way in sustainability through shopping power.
So today take a moment think about where our food is comes from, and the hard work and energy that went into its approaches to feed people and protect our planet.
* EDF takes no money from our corporate partners—we are funded solely through grants, donations and membership.
With U.S. policy engagement on climate action in limbo, the rest of the world is marching forward. As major CEOs and political leaders gathered at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, clear support was shown for creative investment in clean energy, sustainable development and other climate change mitigation practices.
While many ideas were discussed, however, one topic emerged as both a driver of climate impact and an opportunity area for huge climate benefits: deforestation.
Two major initiatives around deforestation were launched at the WEF:
— A fund to catalyze private investment in deforestation-free agriculture was announced by the Norwegian government, the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), UN Environment, the Global Environmental Facility, and many other supporters. Their goal? To help fund sustainable intensification of agriculture in jurisdictions which are effectively working toward reducing deforestation. The fund will be operational by middle of 2017 and aims to protect over 5 million hectares of forest and peatlands through its projects by 2020.
Norway pledged up to $100 million, with a capitalization goal of $400 million from other donors and private sector partners. The model aims to engage even more private sector financing, for a total investment of $1.6 billion by 2020. The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 and major food giants like Carrefour, Marks & Spencer, Mars, Nestle and others are expressing support. Unilever is the first corporate leader to commit funding, with a pledge of $25 million over the next 5 years.
— A plan to use big data to monitor and trace the raw materials in major corporations’ supply chains. Led by the World Resources Institute, the initiative has major support from food companies such as Bunge, Cargill, Walmart, and others, with a total combined value of $2.9 trillion.
The goal is to build a decision-support system to help companies track progress and real-time challenges associated with their deforestation commitments. The tool will enable corporations to make real-time decisions about geographies to prioritize in their deforestation reduction work, and get alerts when illegal activities are happening in those regions. While the tool is still in very early stages, the future could be bright.
Deforestation-free sourcing? There’s an app for that!
Two initiatives… powerful trends
So: what do these two initiatives—one helping to ensure that farming already-cleared land becomes more productive, and one helping companies shed light on the complex, murky labyrinth of their global supply chains—tell us about emerging trends in global climate leadership?
- Forests matter: Stakeholders understand the importance of forests for climate and supply chain stability. The impressive list of participants and lofty goals show that forests have become part of the main stage for how to address climate change globally. Tropical forest loss contributes about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions annually, but can also be a major carbon sink if managed appropriately. Corporations understand that forests are vital for reducing reputational risk in product lines, ensuring stable weather patterns that can produce viable crops into the future, and increasing the resiliency of major geographic regions against drought and flooding. These new commitments indicate that action on forests as part of the climate dialogue are here to stay.
- Collective action is the right tool: Companies see the value in working collectively on effective solutions for deforestation reduction. Corporations know that there is significant risk in not engaging effectively on forests, both for the climate and for their supply chains. But the more challenging question to date has been: how? Over 350 companies have made public commitments to reduce deforestation related to major agricultural commodities in their supply chains. However, only one-third of these companies report on how they will reach these goals. These two new initiatives show the value of collective action between companies, non-profits,
and governments to engage effectively in the multi-faceted challenge of deforestation-free sourcing. The days of working in silos, simply along supply chain boundaries, are no longer the most effective strategies. Working together provides new, creative solutions that can have an impact across entire regions rather than solely withinthe boundaries of sourcing relationships.
- There is still much to be done. While these initiatives are important signals of major trends within the deforestation space, they are still only in their infancy. Time will tell if the stakeholders engaged will be able to actualize the ambitious goals and creative thinking embedded in these ideas.
But, I’m optimistic. What emerged out of Davos tells me that the collective work of these major corporations can get us to where we need to go: productive, economically viable agricultural supply chains without destroying critical forest habitat upon which we all rely.
Will the U.S. join this trend toward collective action? The jury is still out on that one.
Editor’s Note—We’re proud to make two, new introductions this month: Katie Anderson joins our Supply Chain team as a Project Manager with a focus on deforestation, and “The Business of Food” is born as a new category dedicated to exploring how the growing, processing, distributing, purchasing, consuming and disposing of food impacts our communities, our economy and our planet.
A month out from the election, we know that the global community faces significant uncertainty about what President-elect Trump and his administration will mean for climate outcomes. But with the 24-hour news cycle making it clear just how “transitional” this presidential transition period is, I think it’s worth shining a light on three recent events that I’m going label has hopeful, tragic and confounding:
- Hopeful: as part of its 2025 sustainability goals, Walmart announced a target reduction of 1 gigaton of greenhouse gases from its supply chain;
- Tragic: Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) announced a 29% increase in deforestation over the past year;
- Confounding: thinking he was going to have a climate change chat with Ivanka Trump, Al Gore made a trip to Manhattan—and ended up sitting down with the President-elect as well.
Let’s take the second part first and talk about deforestation. Tropical forest loss contributes about 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, making forests an incredibly valuable part of the climate conversation.
Alongside the climate benefits, forests also provide habitat for 70% of the world’s species, allow for improved water quality and support livelihoods for indigenous communities. So INPE’s announcement is absolutely tragic—especially when you consider that the amount of tropical forest lost in just one year equals the size of the state of Delaware.
So let’s move on to the hopeful part: Walmart’s goal. Just how much, exactly, is 1 gigaton of greenhouse gas? Most often it’s held up as being equal to the annual emissions of Germany (the world’s 4th largest economy). But just so you can appreciate the scale of both Walmart’s audacious ambitions and the problem we’re facing in our rainforests, Walmart’s goal is equivalent to only ¼ the annual GHG emissions caused by global deforestation!
Which means we’ve got a long way to go.
On to the confounding part: kudos to Ivanka Trump for inviting Al Gore for a talk on climate change. Sadly, it seems her dream position of being the “Climate Czar” will be ceremonial at best, because whatever was discussed at their Manhattan meeting was likely rendered moot by her father’s nomination of Scott Pruitt to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I’m guessing we’ll never really know what was said, but if Donald and Ivanka are even half the business geniuses they claim to be, they should have listened to Gore, particularly if he brought up deforestation. Here’s why:
Sustainable sourcing drives business value
Creating deforestation-free supply chains provides value to corporate bottom lines. Effective work on reducing deforestation in supply chains reduces reputational risk, builds trust and transparency with consumers, and drives investor value. Just two examples include:
- Malaysia’s IOI Group saw a 10% decrease in stock values after the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm suspended the company’s engagement.
- The Carbon Disclosure Project found that investors managing $19 trillion in assets are asking companies to report on deforestation risk.
In other words, customers and shareholders around the world are waking up, and business leaders are responding accordingly. Given that agriculture and forestry account for around 75% of global tree cover loss, corporate actors who source our everyday products now realize they have big role to play in finding a solution.
Walmart is a perfect example: the need to expand the sourcing of commodities produced with zero net deforestation was cited as an essential component of meeting the 1 gigaton goal. And Walmart is by no means alone: to date, 366 companies have made public commitments to reduce deforestation in their supply chains—for the simple reason that they’re becoming aware of the major risks of not engaging in deforestation-free sourcing.
Unfortunately, public information on if/how companies are achieving these goals is only available for one-third of these commitments, but it appears that, while they’re a good start, commitments alone are not enough.
Given all that, what’s a forward-thinking CEO to do regarding deforestation?
Landscape-scale approaches are critical to hitting targets
An emerging opportunity is in engaging landscapes, or jurisdictions, in reducing deforestation across the entire area. Rather than going farm-by-farm to achieve certifications—which is likely to lead to islands of “green” in a sea of deforestation—a jurisdictional approach allows whole regions to be categorized as reducing deforestation.
This is valuable for many reasons:
- the costs of monitoring compliance are shared among governments, corporate actors, and other stakeholders;
- it avoids leakage—a problem where one farm may reduce deforestation but will push deforestation into a different farm;
- it works across all commodities that drive deforestation rather than solely through certain supply chains;
- it protects the rights of landholders and indigenous communities.
Now, more than ever, business needs to lead
President-elect Trump often cites business as “the solution” to what’s ailing our country. In terms of climate change, this is one area where he and I agree.
In these uncertain (read: hopeful, tragic, confounding) times, it is incredibly important for corporations to publicly lead on how they work within their operations and their supply chains to reach climate balance. This means setting bigger goals, digging more deeply into the weeds to understand the impacts of their supply chains, and reaching beyond their walls to find the solutions that are most likely to bring the change we need.