COP27: Food industry plan to end deforestation ‘falls short’

A plan to end deforestation in soy, palm oil, beef and cacao production by 2025 — released by 14 major agricultural commodity companies including Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and JBS — falls far short of what would be needed to meet global climate goals, environmental groups say.

The roadmap, released on Monday as the UN climate change conference was underway in Egypt, lays out how the sector will reduce deforestation-linked emissions with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in order to avert climate change’s most catastrophic effects. The forest, land and agricultural sector accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse emissions — and land-use change such as cutting down forests to graze cattle or plowing up grasslands to plant crops is a key driver.

The companies pledged to develop plans for eliminating deforestation for specific commodities and to report yearly on their progress while also measuring and disclosing emissions from land-use change and supporting producers as they transition to “forest positive” practices.

But Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth, said in a statement that the plan’s failure to end deforestation immediately, and instead allow companies to establish their own cut-off dates for deforestation by 2025, “means the bulldozers will keep running and the destruction will continue.”

Carter Roberts, President and CEO of The World Wildlife Fund-U.S., commended strong commitments from the palm oil sector but said the plan outlined only “steps forward” on beef and “falls well short of what is needed on soy.”

In a statement, he said that while the commitment to end deforestation for cattle production in the Amazon was clear, the roadmap made no mention of converting land in other regions for grazing. Similarly, the roadmap proposed ending deforestation for soybean production, but not the conversion of other types of land, such as Brazil’s Cerrado savannah. “It cherry picks which lands it will cover leaving out significant parts of the most important landscapes,” Roberts said.

Roberts also said that since the plan’s cutoff date for ending deforestation is still three years away, it would “surely spark a race to the bottom” as producers would try to expand production in the short-term to maximize profits before the new guidelines take effect.

This isn’t the first time agribusinesses have pledged to end deforestation. In 2010, Cargill was part of a group of hundreds of companies that committed to “net zero” deforestation by 2020. But none of the companies met that goal. And, as FERN reported last year, a plan to curb deforestation in the Brazil by intensifying cattle production was criticized by environmentalists who said it could instead legally-sanction and intensify the destruction of the forest.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing”, noting that increasing numbers of businesses and local governments are voluntarily pledging to bring their emissions to net zero, but there is little accountability.

“The criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through,” he said.

To provide some clarity, Guterres convened an expert group last year to come up with guidelines for “credible, accountable net zero pledges.” In a report released on Tuesday, the panel laid out recommendations for ensuring that these pledges lead to meaningful emissions reductions and not be used by companies seeking to burnish their image while delaying real decarbonization.

Companies and other non-state actors that are investing in fossil fuels or are engaged in deforestation and other environmental harm cannot claim to be net zero, the authors said. The panel also took aim at the use of carbon offsets, which are difficult to verify and can allow companies to essentially pay to pollute instead of cutting emissions, stating that non-state actors must make absolute emissions reductions to meet their climate goals and use offsets only to go beyond these benchmarks.

The report also noted that, while one third of the largest publicly traded companies worldwide have made net zero commitments, their emissions reductions strategies and targets often remain vague. The panel recommended that companies and other non-state actors create transition plans that are publicly available and spell out how they will reduce overall emissions in the short-, medium- and long-term, as well as how they will avoid deforestation, and how their lobbying and other political activities align with their net zero targets.

While these recommendations are not legally-binding, Guterres called on CEOs, mayors and other leaders of organizations that have made net zero pledges to “abide by this standard and update your guidelines right away.”

For fossil fuel companies and “their financial enablers” who have made net zero pledges, he had a sharper message: “Using bogus ‘net-zero’ pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world off the climate cliff,” he said. “The sham must end.”