GLASGOW - The leaders of more than 100 nations on Tuesday (Nov 2) pledged to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, in a bid to preserve the planet's natural carbon sponges that can slow the rate of global warming.
The Glasgow leaders' declaration on forests and land use, which was announced during the COP26 climate talks in the Scottish city, was signed by the European Union and countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, the United States and Congo.
Together, the signatories account for about 85 per cent of the world's forests.
Said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the Forest and Land Use event at COP26: "These great teeming ecosystems - these cathedrals of nature - are the lungs of our planet. Forests support communities, livelihoods and food supply, and absorb the carbon we pump into the atmosphere. They are essential to our very survival."
Ms Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI), said the 2030 target is significant as a reiteration from a new generation of leaders of the commitment made by some 40 countries seven years ago in the New York Declaration on Forests.
The New York Declaration, signed in 2014, aims to reduce natural forest loss by half by 2020 and strive to end it by 2030.
"Many more countries have signed up, including those that are significant in terms of forest area, such as Brazil and Russia, and in terms of their footprint on forests through trade and investment, especially China," added Ms Seymour.
But she cautioned that since the declaration is a collective and shared commitment without an embedded accountability mechanism, its significance will lie in how it is translated into specific actions by specific countries.
"This will depend on citizens holding their leaders accountable for following through on these commitments," she told The Straits Times.
The Glasgow leaders' declaration is backed by almost US$20 billion (S$27 billion) in funding.
Some US$12 billion of public finance from 12 countries, including Britain, will go towards supporting activities in developing countries, such as restoring degraded land, tackling wildfires and supporting the rights of indigenous communities between this year and 2025.
Another $7.2 billion of private investment will come from more than 30 financial institutions, including Aviva, Schroders and Axa, to eliminate investment in activities linked to deforestation.
The declaration also outlines six key areas in which the 2030 goal can be achieved.
They include plans to conserve land-based ecosystems - such as forests - while accelerating their restoration, and aligning policies in agriculture and trade with the goal of ensuring that these activities are done sustainably.
Under the declaration, the leaders also pledged to direct financial flows to areas such as forest management and conservation, and to protect forests in a way that is respectful of the rights of indigenous people and local communities.
"We urge all leaders to join forces in a sustainable land use transition," said the signatories of the declaration. This is essential to meeting the Paris Agreement goals, they added.
The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015 by almost 200 nations, aims to limit planetary heating to 2 deg C - preferably 1.5 deg C - above pre-industrial levels.
This threshold will help reduce the impact of climate change, including more frequent extreme weather events, sea-level rise and more intense storms, climate scientists say.
The planetary crisis today is caused by an ever-thickening layer of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which traps heat and throws the Earth's systems out of whack.
But ecosystems - such as tropical rainforests and peatlands - have the natural ability to take in planet-warming carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and then convert them to biomass in their trunks, leaves, roots and soils - locking away the carbon from the atmosphere.
Forests are the lungs of the planet, absorbing around one-third of the global carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels every year, said the British host of COP26 in a statement. "But we are losing them at an alarming rate. An area of forest the size of 27 football pitches is lost every minute," it added.
The burning of fossil fuels is the primary contributor to the atmospheric blanket, but land use changes and deforestation are the second-largest contributor.
Professor Koh Lian Pin, who helms the National University of Singapore (NUS) Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions, said the declaration is an important step towards turning off the tap of carbon emissions from the conversion of natural ecosystems to unsustainable land uses.
He said deforestation and forest degradation contribute to about a tenth of annual global emissions, and stopping these are crucial in the world's bid to limit planetary warming.
But Prof Koh said more details are needed to determine if these goals can be met.
For instance, the ability to achieve the intended outcomes depends on effective policies at the national and sub-national levels to incentivise the transition of forest-opening industries to other activities that can sustain the local economies.
He added: "US$20 billion might sound like a lot, but the opportunity cost of carrying on business as usual in many parts of the world may be many times, if not magnitudes, greater than that."
WRI's Ms Seymour said that while the funding pledges are larger than in the past, they remain small compared to the private financial flows and public subsidies that drive deforestation.
She said: "That's why they should be seen in conjunction with the complementary efforts being announced at the (Glasgow meeting) to drive system change, such as putting a market price on forest carbon, and commitments to get deforestation out of financial-sector investment portfolios."
Prof Koh said it is also important that financial benefits trickle down to affected local communities, who are the stewards of the land, through measures that enhance their lives and livelihoods.
Separately, Britain, Norway, Germany, the United States and the Netherlands, in partnership with 17 funders, on Monday (Nov 1) pledged to invest US$1.7 billion to help indigenous and local communities safeguard the biodiverse tropical forests that are vital to protecting the planet from climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemic risk.
Singapore did not sign the Glasgow leaders' declaration on forests and land use. The Straits Times has reached out to the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment for comment.