Is a tree safer in the city than the forest?

In partnership with WWF, we’ve just launched a film highlighting the devastation that deforestation has on our planet. We asked WWF’s Chief Adviser on Forests, Will Ashley-Cantello, how we can tackle the challenge.

The video depicts a tree escaping the forest to live in the city – could a tree really be safer in the city?

Will Ashley-Cantello

Will Ashley-Cantello

Chief Adviser – Forests for WWF-UK

Will is involved in forest conservation in WWF’s priority places, with businesses in supply chains as well as international developments in science and policy including REDD+. Before joining WWF-UK in 2014, he worked for the UK government on international policy on forests, climate and development. More recently he ran a research project in Malawi on community forest management.

We are losing forests at a rate of 36 football pitches every minute

While there are encouraging examples of rainforests being safeguarded, we are still losing precious forest area at a rate of 36 football pitches every minute (or 48 if you play American football). Whereas in cities, trees are often given legal protection. Unlike the tree in the film, real trees can’t walk away when their forest is under threat. The partnership between WWF and Unilever aims to show people that while humanity has caused deforestation, we can also bring it under control.

With population growth, a growing demand for resources and land, and the need for communities living around forests to live well, how much can we really slow down deforestation? Is zero deforestation possible?

Possible? Yes. Easy? No.

We have seen it’s possible to begin reversing deforestation while improving the prospects of people’s livelihoods. In the last half century, countries as varied as Costa Rica and Slovenia have increased forest cover while improving living standards. And Brazil, for example, reduced deforestation in the Amazon by 70% between 2005 and 2013 while simultaneously increasing the production of its major agricultural commodity, soy, and enabling over 30 million people to rise into the middle class. 

At a global level, to avoid deforestation simply moving from one country to another, it requires action from all countries – including those importing products from forest nations. At WWF we have modelled a range of scenarios in our Living Forest Report and found that achieving zero net deforestation in 2020 or beyond is ambitious but possible. The alternative is inconceivable: that deforestation continues indefinitely. The real question is how much forest will be lost before we see an end to deforestation?

Unilever uses products and resources like soy and palm oil, pulp and paper – what is business’s role in the solution and also what’s the opportunity?

Achieving zero net deforestation in 2020 or beyond is ambitious but possible.

It’s vital WWF and others work with companies buying products grown at the forest frontier. That’s how we bring about change. Unilever is playing a leading role in measuring, reporting and reducing the impact of its business on our planet – like its commitment to sustainably source 100% of all agricultural raw materials used by 2020. WWF is encouraged by the progress Unilever has made. We will, of course, always push for more – high ambition is what we are about.

What does ‘good’ look like?

The Brazil case study I mention above is the most significant case study we have, and its success was due to a combination of factors. The voluntary suspension on deforestation in the Amazon made by major soy producers was critical, given that soy production is a major driver for forest clearance. Government action was also essential. There was a marked improvement in law enforcement – clamping down on illegal forest clearing – and a wave of new protected areas established. 

This remarkable progress mustn’t be taken for granted. There’s a danger problems could simply be displaced to other parts of Brazil like the Cerrado and Atlantic Forest. New risks are emerging that threaten to increase the pressure on forests again. So, ‘good’ looks like governments recognising the value of forests in policy decisions, companies finding ways to increase productivity without degrading ecosystems and communities improving their lives in a sustainable way.

Why are you taking this campaign to consumers? Isn’t it up to business to solve this challenge with governments?

Businesses certainly do need to work with and challenge governments. But we also need mass public action. This is a crucial year in the fight against climate change. In December, world leaders will meet in Paris for UN climate talks – the deadline for a new global agreement to prevent disastrous climate change. Ending deforestation is an essential part of this. WWF and Unilever want consumers to be informed about forests and climate change, and how they can make a difference. Governments respond to a clear political mandate, and demand from their citizens.

One of the Global Goals, due to be ratified by the UN in September this year, aims to “halt deforestation” by 2030. Fast forwarding to that time, can you describe your vision for how business and forest communities will be working together sustainably, and what impact it’s having on the world?

If we achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the world will be a radically different place. Absolute poverty will be wiped out. Hunger a thing of the past. Clean, reliable water and modern and clean energy will be available to all. Children everywhere will finish school.

While there are targets on forests specifically, the conservation and sustainable management of forests will be pivotal to achieving all of the above. Forests enable healthy and clean rivers, a stable climate, renewable supplies of wood for energy and paper for learning, food and income opportunities. To achieve this, businesses will respect and invest in forests and their surrounding communities. Community members will have the land tenure, skills, credit and equipment to grow and sell their own produce, or work under fair conditions. And they will still benefit from the services that healthy forests provide.

If there was one thing you could do this year to make big progress on tackling deforestation, what would it be?

Collective action. The market force and political power you and I exert collectively could make a big difference – perhaps as much, or more, than the Paris deal. If this campaign successfully mobilises 1 million or more people across continents to act – planting a tree, making different choices at the supermarket, lobbying your government, making a donation, and/or something bigger – that could really change things. So think big and spread the word!

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