Many of the world’s biggest banks, financial institutions and companies are not doing enough to stop deforestation, and in many cases are continuing to bankroll forest destruction, undermining efforts to stop a major driver of global carbon emissions, a new report has found.
The report, released Thursday by the U.K.-based non-profit, Global Canopy, tracked commitments by 500 of the key companies and financial institutions that use or finance “forest risk” commodities—those most closely linked to the destruction of the world’s forests, including beef, soy, palm oil and timber.
The report found that most of these companies have not made commitments to stop deforestation connected to the full sweep of commodities they rely on or trade, and those that have are doing very little to meet their goals. Financial institutions, including major U.S.-based investment giants, BlackRock and Vanguard, have also failed to make similar commitments and to purge their portfolios of companies linked to deforestation.
“It’s really disappointing that there are still so many companies and financial institutions that haven’t set any deforestation policies at all,” said Emma Thomson, a co-author of the report. “But even those that are making these policies aren’t implementing them effectively. Fifteen percent of carbon emissions comes from deforestation. There is no solution to the climate crisis without a solution to deforestation.”
And, yet, deforestation rates are climbing, especially in forests that are critical for storing vast amounts of carbon, including the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil, which is suffering its highest level of destruction in 15 years.
In its analysis, Global Canopy researchers looked at the 350 companies that most rely on commodities responsible for deforestation and the 150 banks and financial institutions that support them, including pension funds and asset managers.
They found that roughly one-third of these 350 companies have no policies in place to stop deforestation and nearly three-quarters of them have only made commitments to stop deforestation connected to one or two commodities, often those they don’t rely on heavily.
Only one quarter of food manufacturers, retailers and restaurant chains have pledged to eliminate deforestation from the beef, soy and palm oil in their supply chains, while only half the agribusiness commodities companies have done so. Together the food and agribusiness industries comprise half of the companies in the Global Canopy analysis.
“Soy and beef are the biggest drivers of deforestation and they’re being ignored,” Thomson said, noting the report’s findings that companies that use or trade palm oil have been more progressive in making pledges to eliminate deforestation.
The report also emphasizes what many analysts say is the financial industry’s slow pace in responding, not just to their role in the climate crisis, but deforestation in particular.
“We are starting to see some action, definitely not enough, but some action from the big financiers on fossil fuels,” said Moira Birss, director of climate and finance for the advocacy group, Amazon Watch, which was not involved in the report.
Birss noted recent public commitments by BlackRock and Vanguard to remove coal companies from their portfolios, while last October, the French public bank, Banque Postale, announced it would stop financing the oil and gas industries by 2030.
But Global Canopy says that 93 of the150 financial institutions in its analysis have no deforestation policies for their investments in, and lending to, companies that have forest-risk commodities in their supply chains. These companies provide $2.6 trillion in financing for companies that rely on commodities linked to deforestation, the researchers found.
Many major banks, including American giants J.P. Morgan, Bank of America and Citigroup, also got low marks for failing to address deforestation in their lending and investments.
“Rightly, there’s a focus on fossil fuels,” Birss said, “But that focus is coming at the expense of a focus on deforestation. Fossil fuels are the biggest drivers of carbon emissions, but deforestation and land-use is the second.”
The report comes two months after more than 130 countries vowed to stop deforestation by signing on to the “Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use” at the United Nations climate negotiations, known as COP26, in Scotland.
Also at COP26, some 30 financial institutions signed on to a pledge, saying they would shift their portfolios away from agricultural commodity-driven deforestation by 2025.
“In the last decade, roughly 40 times more finance flowed into destructive land-use practices rather than forest protection, conservation and sustainable agriculture,” a U.N. press release said at the time. “The commitment signed by more than 30 financial institutions covering over $8.7 trillion of global assets under management seeks to change that.”
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Advocates say it’s a step in the right direction and a sign that deforestation is getting the attention of investment and financial leaders, but they note that it represents only a small fraction of the world’s banks and investors.
At the COP26, yet another consortium of financial institutions and companies—with $130 trillion in assets—committed to aligning their lending and investment with net-zero emissions targets.
Last October, the advocacy group Global Witness released a report, noting that global banks and investment managers made roughly $1.74 billion in agribusiness deals linked to deforestation, despite voluntary commitments to eliminate deforestation from their businesses.
Global Witness and many other advocacy groups insist that these voluntary commitments don’t work.
Last fall, the U.K. passed legislation requiring companies and financial institutions to disclose risks to their portfolios from climate change, and similar proposals are under consideration in the U.S. and European Union. The Securities and Exchange Commission is crafting a proposed rule that would require companies to reveal information about their greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet, the U.K. legislation does not require companies to disclose deforestation tied to their portfolios, Thomson said, and it’s not known yet whether these other proposals will, either.
“It’s pretty clear that the financial industry only does the right thing on the climate when forced to by intense public pressure and government regulation,” Birss said. “And on the deforestation issue, they haven’t been as strong as on fossil fuels.”