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Forests and COP 21, progress on “No Deforestation” pledges. Q&A with Frances Seymour

Here’s a Q&A with Frances Seymour, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development based in Washington, D.C. on COP21, companies and forests, and the big challenges ahead in 2016.

You were in Paris for COP21. Did you leave feeling optimistic, and if so, why?

Yes, COP21 in Paris inspired optimism, for three reasons:

  • First, the agreement itself combines ambitious targets for limiting global warming with an explicit endorsement of results-based payments for reducing deforestation and forest degradation. That sends an important signal to all the people who have been laboring in the vineyards of REDD+ at national and local levels that continued support will be forthcoming.
  • Second, the establishment of a new rhythm of INDC pledge-and-review every few years will provide a regular opportunity for domestic constituencies in each country to press for more ambition, both in terms of domestic action and international cooperation.
  • Third, Paris during COP21 saw an outpouring of energy from all kinds of people – indigenous leaders, governors, and private companies — who haven’t been waiting around for an international agreement to get on with the forest protection agenda, and already have progress to show.

In the midst of all the pronouncements, which are the most significant for large companies with forest footprints?

I’m particularly intrigued by the announcement made by Unilever and Marks & Spencer that they will preferentially source commodities from countries and sub-national jurisdictions that are making progress on reducing deforestation and improving forest governance.

Such market incentives would be an important complement to REDD+ finance to tip the balance against the forces of deforestation-as-usual in particular geographies.

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Frances Seymour

The sub-national scale – i.e., supply sheds and administrative units – is increasingly recognized as the key level for implementing improved supply chain commitments on the part of companies and improved land-use management on the part of governments.

The strong showing in Paris of governors that participate in the Governors Climate and Forests Task Force provides an indication of the potential for blending these two agendas in ways that align both market and political incentives for protecting forests.

When you look at business responses to the preventing deforestation agenda, do you feel there’s still a bit more noise than action so far?

I’m sure it varies a great deal from one company to another, and even across different parts of the same company, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have the bird’s-eye view necessary to know exactly where the balance lies.

Of course we need to recognize the serious challenges faced by companies that are trying to move from announcements to implementation, and that many of those challenges cannot be overcome through the voluntary actions of private companies acting alone.

We need to applaud those companies that are taking their commitments seriously, and are taking risks by negotiating new kinds of relationships with suppliers, governments, activists, local communities, and other stakeholders.

At the same time, we need to call out those companies that are finding excuses for lagging behind.

Is it that companies are not yet putting enough resource into traceability, partnerships and collaboration, or that it just takes more time to deliver on targets substantively?

I don’t have a sufficiently “insider” perspective to have an informed view of the adequacy of resources being invested by individual firms in traceability and partnerships, but again, I’m sure it various both within and across companies.

Everyone understands that building the new management systems and institutional relationships necessary to clean up supply chains takes time, and that 100 percent compliance is aspirational, at least in the short term.

What external observers are looking for are signs of good faith efforts to implement commitments. On the producer side, that would include responding swiftly to reports of problems, and severing relationships with egregiously offending suppliers that have been given a chance to clean up their acts.

On the buyer side, it would be great to see the conclusion of a few preferential sourcing agreements following the announcement mentioned above. These kinds of actions would provide comfort that pledges are being translated into meaningful action on the ground.

5) Is it right that campaigning NGOs continue to beat up on large companies when much of what happens on the ground is beyond their control? (i.e. Indonesia)

Is it wrong for NGOs to report accurately on what’s happening within the boundaries of concessions over which large companies have legal responsibility? I don’t think so.

Such reporting can help illuminate problems – such as the spread of fires from agricultural lands, and illegal felling and burning on the part of third parties – that can only be addressed through empowering local communities and increased law enforcement effort on the part of the government.

Working together, NGOs and large companies could constitute a powerful constituency to advance the reforms that are needed, and to create an enabling environment for companies to follow through on their commitments.

At events on the sidelines of COP21 in Paris, various representatives of the business sector, civil society, and the Government of Indonesia all expressed their willingness to collaborate on aspects of this agenda.

They highlighted actions ranging from producing better maps of peatlands, holding the government accountable for pledges to advance recognition of indigenous territories, and working together to re-wet the drained peatlands that are most vulnerable to fire.

6) Finally, tell us about your new book. What’s the gist of it, and when is it out?

The title of the book, co-authored with my CGD colleague Jonah Busch, is Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change. The purpose of the book is to communicate to new audiences – particularly those in “Development World” and “Climate World” – the strong case for international cooperation to protect the world’s remaining tropical forests.

The book gives particular emphasis to recent advances (such as dramatic improvements in forest monitoring technology and our ability to analyze deforestation), the pro-poor development benefits provided by forests (especially in the form of ecosystem services), and the alignment of political constituencies in both rich countries and forest-rich countries for action (including companies that have committed to rid their supply chains of deforestation).

The book builds on more than twenty background papers that are already available on the CGD website. The manuscript is basically complete, and following the remaining rounds of review, revision, and editing, we hope to publish by mid-2016.

Frances Seymour is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development based in Washington, D.C., and a Senior Advisor to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. More information on here work, and her excellent regular blog can be found here

Here’s a brilliant essay she wrote on the no-deforestation movement, with fascinating historical parallels. I strongly suggest you read this.

Frances will be speaking at our second Washington D.C. conference on how business can tackle deforestation, at the Pew Centre in Washington, D.C. on April 6-7 2016. More details on that can be found here. Senior executives from the following organisations are confirmed to take part: 3M, McDonald’s, Greenpeace, Cargill, Domtar, Office Depot, Bunge, Georgia Pacific, Sime Darby, World Resources Institute, Procter & Gamble, Rainforest Action Network, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, WWF and many more. Go here for the latest agenda.

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