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World leaders pledge to end deforestation by 2030

Healthy vegetation sits next to a field cleared by a fire in the Amazon in Rondonia State, Brazil
Healthy vegetation sits next to a field cleared by a fire in the Amazon in Rondonia State, Brazil. (Image credit: Leonardo Carrato/Bloomberg)

More than 100 world leaders have agreed to a commitment to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, in the first major deal of the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland. 

The commitment, called the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forest and Land Use encompasses 85% of the world's forests and offers $19.2 billion in public and private funding to end both the legal and illegal destruction of forestland. 

Leaders such as President Joe Biden, China's Xi Jinping and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro have signed on to the deal. But the signatories have not yet determined how the commitment will be enforced, leaving scientists to warn that previous legally nonbinding deforestation deals — such as the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, which pledged to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030 — failed to meet their objectives.

Related: The world has a serious deforestation problem. These 7 images prove it.

"It is good news to have a political commitment to end deforestation from so many countries and significant funding to move forward on that journey," Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London, told the BBC. But he added that the world "has been here before" with the 2014 declaration, "which failed to slow deforestation at all." 

Jo Blackman, head of forests policy and advocacy at environmental human rights NGO Global Witness, said that while the pledge's list of signatories is "impressive," it risks reiterating past failed commitments if it "lacked teeth" in the form of legal commitments.

In addition to being crucial ecosystems, forests absorb and store carbon dioxide — which makes up around 80% of the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. Deforestation and land clearing account for 23% of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report

The main drivers of land clearing are pasture for cattle (41%), commercial cropland to grow palm oil and soy (18%) and logging for paper and wood (13%), according to a 2019 study published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Satellite data compiled by Global Forest Watch shows that one-third of the tropical deforestation that occurred in 2019 happened in Brazil. In fact, Brazil and Indonesia accounted for 52% of the 20,850 square miles (54,000 square kilometers) of lost forestland globally.

Since the 1960s, the cattle herd of the Amazon Basin has increased from 5 million to more than 70-80 million cows

Since the 1960s, the cattle herd of the Amazon Basin has increased from 5 million to more than 70-80 million cows. (Image credit: Brasil2 via Getty Images)

At the COP26 news conference, Bolsonaro said his government was committed to "eliminating illegal deforestation by 2030."

In fact, many of the Bolsonaro regime’s actions have actually made it easier to seize, cut and clear rainforest via legal means, according to Human Rights Watch. And the Amazon is already on the brink. A July 2021 study showed that the Amazon has switched from producing more carbon than it absorbs, Live Science previously reported. Another study, published in October 2020, showed that as much as 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be at a tipping point where it could transform into savanna.

Although there may be challenges ahead, reforestation successes aren't unprecedented and can be achieved. Despite the losses to precious tropical rainforest, one study using NASA satellites shows that in recent decades the world has become a visibly greener place. This is due, in large part, to efforts by China and India, which account for one-third of Earth's greening over the past 20 years; 42% of China's greening is made up of the planting of new forests and expanding old ones through programs that aim to mitigate air pollution, land degradation and climate change.

Of the pledge's new funding, $1.7 billion will be used to support Indigenous communities in protecting rainforests by securing their rights to land. According to Global Witness, of the record 227 people killed while protecting ecosystems in 2020, one-third belonged to indigenous communities.

Originally published on Live Science.

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like weird animals and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.