UNEP: What human activities threaten to bring us to the point of ecosystem collapse?
GL: A significant threat in Southeast Asia and Latin America are food production systems. The expansion of soy, cattle and other commodities is taking place through deforestation and the loss of native forests. That is the main problem.
That doesn’t mean that food production systems cannot expand. They must expand because the global population will continue to increase for some time before it stabilizes. But food production systems will have to expand on other types of land. That is feasible; it is not economically impossible to sustain.
Infrastructure is another driver—the penetration of roads into intact forests brings deforestation with it.
Wildfires are becoming an important threat and are an example of a positive feedback loop, in which you have increasing climate change and global temperatures that, through different transmission mechanisms, result in an increased frequency and intensity of wildfires. These pump more carbon into the air which in turn re-enforces climate change, increasing temperatures, and so on.
UNEP: You mentioned the need for forest restoration on a massive scale. What else needs to happen to safeguard rainforests?
GL: On the corporate side, companies involved in the production of commodities should clean up their supply chains. There should hopefully be public pressure to push these companies to do that. There are already signs that major buyers of commodities, like the European Union, are seriously thinking about imposing conditions for the purchase of commodities, meaning that these commodities cannot be tainted by deforestation.
Governments must also take action to curb deforestation, strengthen conservation and drive ahead with restoration. Brazil, for instance, proved in the past that it is perfectly feasible to halt deforestation without damaging agricultural industries. From 2004 to 2012, deforestation fell by about 80 per cent while the country continued to be a major exporter of commodities.
A third priority is to put a proper price on carbon. In the European Union carbon market, the price of permission to pollute is between 60 and 70 euros a tonne. But the price of forest carbon on voluntary carbon markets is only about US$12. That is irrational because when carbon goes into the atmosphere it doesn’t matter if it is carbon coming from a cement company or from deforestation. Carbon is carbon. If the price for forest carbon came close to the price you see in Europe, the economic rationale for a lot of the activities that result in deforestation would disappear. It would be better business to produce emissions reductions or carbon removals.
UNEP: What is UNEP doing to counter deforestation?
GL: UNEP works on all the main levers of change. While there is a need to expand finance in this sector, to increase the price of forest carbon, UNEP doesn’t buy or sell carbon credits. Our task is to make sure that the system has social and environmental integrity, that there are no abuses there, while at the same time facilitating access by countries and communities to these payments for emissions reductions, whether from donors or on voluntary carbon markets. This falls under the work of our UN-REDD programme.