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Cleared forest in the Amazon


The clock is ticking

With less than six months to go, the countdown to the 2020 deadline for company action to tackle deforestation is sounding ominously like a doomsday clock.

by Helen Burley

The evidence from the natural world screams for urgent action, with icecaps melting faster than expected and record temperature highs in Europe. Forests have been recognised as a crucial part of the climate solution – and that means keeping existing forests standing.

With the 2020 deadline approaching, some of the biggest companies responsible for driving deforestation and exacerbating the climate emergency have announced action – but is it a case of too little, too late?

Companies need to raise their game

Last month, Cargill, one of the biggest soy traders in Brazil (where deforestation rates are accelerating) acknowledged that the sector’s 2020 commitments will not be met, and pledged $30 million to “convene the best and brightest minds to identify innovative solutions to end deforestation”.

But at the same time, the company sent an open letter to soy producers saying it will oppose a soy moratorium in the Cerrado region – one of the key proposals put forward for addressing deforestation in this important biodiverse region.

Cargill’s announcement came as the company delivered its soy action plan – setting out how the company intends to deliver on the latest version of its soy policy published in February this year, which included a commitment to end vegetation clearance in the Cerrado “as soon as possible”.

It seems that for Cargill, “as soon as possible” is not anytime soon. According to the action plan, the company will not have trained staff on the “sustainability challenges” until May 2020; and a list of priority farmers for engagement will not be done until June 2020… When is it actually going to tell them that it will no longer buy their soy if they continue clearing forests?

In acknowledging that it will not meet its 2020 commitment, Cargill seems to have abandoned all urgency. But time is running out. Climate scientists say we have 12 years to prevent global temperature rise of over 1.5 degrees – and forests must be part of the solution.

Action across supply chains

The key reason why companies are not going to meet their 2020 commitments is that most have left it too late.

Because Cargill is not the only company at fault. The 2018 Forest 500 assessment found that while 163 of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains have 2020 deforestation commitments for at least one of the forest-risk commodities in their supply chain, none of these companies will be able to guarantee that their supply chain is deforestation-free by 2020.

Even more worryingly, 151 of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains have not even recognised the need to address deforestation risk. And 130 of the companies that do have a commitment, do not apply that commitment across all of the forest-risk commodities in their supply chain. Which means the majority of the companies that could help solve the problem of deforestation are not doing anything about it.

So there is a desperate need for all companies involved in forest-risk supply chains to up their game.

Commitments beyond 2020

Companies that have 2020 targets must look at what needs to be done to implement these commitments as early as possible. That means taking action to identify where the risks lie, engaging with suppliers to overcome those risks, and setting ambitious, but realistic targets for when commitments will be delivered.

And these companies should also monitor and report on how well they are implementing these commitments – some companies are already doing this and others must follow.

Companies that do not yet have commitments in place need to wake up to the deforestation risks in their supply chain, adopt strong policies to eliminate those risks, setting out clear steps for implementing the polices and the dates by which this will be done.

Commitments must cover the whole supply chain – and until they do, the market driver for deforestation will remain.

Action at government level

As Cargill has pointed out, companies cannot deliver on their deforestation-free commitments on their own. Companies need support across the breadth of the supply chain to achieve that goal – and that means support from competitors, customers and from governments.

Governments around the world have also made commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce climate emissions, and more specifically to end deforestation in agricultural supply chains – and have also failed to act quickly enough.

Governments in producer countries have a role to play in protecting forest habitat, and in supporting development strategies that do not rely on deforestation.

In consumer countries, including in the UK and Europe, governments are only now starting to see how they might flex their legislative power to incentivise deforestation-free supply chains. They could require companies to ensure the commodities they import are deforestation-free – and the European Union may yet include such a requirement in its forest action plan.

Such legislation would provide companies with a clearer incentive for action – but companies do not need to wait for this to act. Platforms already exist that allow companies to work together to find solutions. Cargill is a member of the Soft Commodities Forum for example, and in the UK is involved in the Government’s Global Resource Initiative taskforce estabished to ensure supply chains are more sustainable.

The clock is ticking and the climate will not wait. Action is needed now.


Photo credit: Daniele Gidsicki via, creative commons licence