As COP26 drew to a close, I left Glasgow feeling inspired by the Indigenous People and activists I heard from. Their voices and rights are crucial to halting climate breakdown and the destruction of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests. They are the real climate leaders.

This contrasts with the feeling of disappointment with world leaders again falling short of delivering the changes needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Whilst Glasgow saw a plethora of pledges on deforestation from governments, companies and financial institutions, these were thin on detail and lacking accountability.

Here we look at the key COP26 announcements on deforestation and what they might mean for the world’s forests.

The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration

The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use saw over 140 countries commit to ‘halt and reverse’ deforestation by 2030.

Viewed optimistically, the declaration is the first of its kind to bring together so many Heads of State including signatories from key countries with tropical forests. It signals growing awareness that there is no way we can contain climate change to 1.5C while destroying the world’s remaining forests.

However, the Glasgow Declaration is a purely voluntary statement and not a legal commitment. It didn’t even receive a mention in the final negotiated COP26 text. The lack of accountability in the declaration is particularly worrying given the failure of previous similar pledges such as the New York Declaration on Forests, which committed to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it completely by 2030.

If the Glasgow Declaration fails to halt deforestation, it will amount to little more than a PR stunt that helps grab headlines and gives a veneer of respectability to some of the worst offenders. The fact that Indonesian Ministers cast doubt on their ability to deliver on the country’s commitment, whilst the ink on the pledge was barely dry, does not give cause for confidence. Nor does the track record of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who signed up to the declaration despite allowing the accelerated destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which latest data shows is at a 15 year high.

Funding pledges

Public and private funding amounting to almost £14 billion ($19.2 billion) was pledged at COP26 to tackle deforestation, and increase support for Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Resourcing grassroots communities is vital to help people to formalise their rights, defend legal cases and fight the threats to their land and livelihoods – which can come from companies but also the state. These groups are on the frontline of defending the environment, yet currently receive just less than 1% of climate funding.

However, as we pointed out at the time of the announcement, COP26’s finance pledge is dwarfed by the flows of finance to deforestation. Our recent analysis found that banks and investors in the UK, EU, US, and China ploughed around eight times the amount pledged at COP26 – $157 billion since the Paris Climate Agreement - into agribusiness firms linked to tropical deforestation and associated human rights abuses. And these financiers netted an estimated $1.74 billion in income along the way.

So what progress was made at COP26 to stop these financial flows?

Are banks and financial institutions going to clean up their act?

At the start of COP26, a group of over 30 organisations, including Global Witness, put out a joint statement highlighting the 7 key elements that must be in any effective plan to address financial flows driving deforestation and associated human rights abuses. Sadly, none of the commitments at COP26 got anywhere near achieving this.

Amongst the finance announcements at COP26 was a statement by 30 asset managers with $8.7 trillion assets under management committing to “eliminate commodity-driven deforestation from our investment and lending portfolios by 2025”. The approach appears to emphasize influencing companies they finance, rather than outright divestment from repeat offenders – so the jury is out on what this will deliver in practice. No high street banks signed up to this commitment, and almost all of the financiers featured in our recent report as significant sources of financing for deforestation financing were conspicuous by their absence, including the likes of HSBC, JPMorgan and BNP Paribas.

In addition, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) announced that financial institutions controlling $130 trillion are now signed up to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050. Despite widespread recognition of the role of forests in climate change, having a climate policy or a ‘net zero’ commitment by 2050 will not require a financial institution to stop bankrolling deforestation. In fact, they could in principle meet a Net Zero commitment – as currently defined by GFANZ  – and still be funding the rampant destruction of rainforests. Alliance members include HSBC, BNP Paribas and JP Morgan – all of whom were featured in our recent report as serial financiers of some of the worst known agribusiness companies linked to deforestation and human rights abuses. Sadly, these new commitments give us no confidence that these banks and investors will end their complicity in global forest destruction.

Corporate/Big agribusiness commits to…. what exactly?

Globally, commercial agribusiness is  the number one driver of deforestation, as forests are destroyed to clear land for crops and livestock. At COP26, the Agricultural Commodity Companies Corporate Statement of Purpose committed to laying out a roadmap to 1.5C for companies responsible for half of global trade in forest-risk commodities. However, it says little beyond the reiteration of previous commitments on deforestation. Indeed, many of the signatories featured in our Deforestation Dividends report and have made similar commitments before. We have engaged with them repeatedly on their links to deforestation and human rights abuses, only to see continued bad practice.

What next?

Our planet and communities on the frontline cannot afford more delayed action and empty promises on deforestation. The repeated failure of voluntary commitments by governments, companies and financiers shows that we can no longer rely on toothless pledges.

As UK Minister for the International Environment and Climate, Lord Goldsmith, pointed out at an event we hosted as part of COP26: “If we cannot move to a situation where banks cease investing in the kind of destructive activities that we’re talking about here, if that doesn’t happen, as a consequence of commitment across the board within that sector, then the only alternative is [that] government regulates". The question is how much longer before we reach this point? How long will global leaders wait whilst the Amazon and other tropical rainforests continue to be decimated?

The only way to embed real accountability and remove the incentives driving global deforestation is through regulation. This is why it’s so crucial that consumer countries and hubs of global finance like China, the EU, UK and US bring forward laws to stop their firms and financial institutions fuelling the destruction of the world’s climate-critical forests.

Ultimately, the success of the pledges made in Glasgow will be judged by what actually changes on the ground for forests and for the Indigenous People and local communities that depend on and defend them. The world will be watching.

COP Climate Summit