More than 100 global leaders have pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade, underpinned by €16.4bn in public and private funds to invest in protecting and restoring forests.
The promise, made in a joint statement issued late yesterday at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, was backed by the leaders of countries including Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which collectively account for 85% of the world's forests.
The Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forest and Land Use will cover forests totalling more than 13 million square miles, according to a statement released by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's office on behalf of the leaders.
"We will have a chance to end humanity's long history as nature's conqueror, and instead become its custodian," said Mr Johnson, calling it an unprecedented agreement.
US President Joe Biden said a new US plan would "help the world deliver on our shared goal of halting natural forest loss" and restoring at least an additional 200 million hectares of forest and other ecosystems by 2030.
"We're going to work to ensure markets recognise the true economic value of natural carbon sinks and motivate governments, landowners and stakeholders to prioritise conservation," Mr Biden said.
Several additional government and private initiatives were launched today to help reach that goal, including billions in pledges for indigenous guardians of the forest and sustainable agriculture.
Forests absorb roughly 30% of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the non-profit World Resources Institute. The forests take the emissions out of the atmosphere and prevent them from warming the climate.
Yet this natural climate buffer is rapidly disappearing. In 2020, the world lost 258,000 sq km (100,000 sq miles) of forest - an area larger than the United Kingdom, according to WRI's Global Forest Watch. The conservation charity WWFe stimates that 27 football fields of forest are lost every minute.
The agreement vastly expands a similar commitment made by 40 countries as part of the 2014 New York Declaration of Forests and goes further than ever before in laying out the resources to reach that goal.
Non-government organisation Global Witness said it was unclear how governments would be held accountable for meeting the new pledge. National laws banning companies and financial institutions from activities that fuel deforestation are needed, it said in a statement.
Veteran ecologist Dan Nepstad with the Earth Innovation Institute praised the deal for refreshing past commitments with more money and wider support. But whether it is effective depends how quickly and efficiently the funds are doled out, he said.
Under the agreement, 12 countries have pledged to provide €10.36bn of public funding between 2021 and 2025 to help developing countries, including in efforts to restore degraded land and tackle wildfires.
At least a further €6.23bn would be provided by private sector investors.
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Brazil signed on to the agreement despite soaring deforestation of the Amazon rainforest under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.
Scientists fear destruction of the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, may push it beyond a point of no return, when it can no longer sustain itself and dries out into savannah. That would release massive amounts of greenhouse gas and be catastrophic for the global climate.
Brazil separately announced a more aggressive target yesterday to end illegal deforestation by 2028.
Carlos Nobre, one of the leading climatologists studying the Amazon, said Brazil has yet to show it is effective at enforcing the laws prohibiting most deforestation, despite the pledge.
"There's no way to believe that the president has changed his historic policy position," he said.
Although there are signs that Amazon deforestation has come down marginally in 2021, destruction remains at a level not seen since 2008.
Gabon, also signed onto the agreement, despite plans to continue logging while using practices to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
Five countries, including the Britain and United States, and a group of global charities also pledged to provide €1.46bn in financing to support indigenous people's conservation of forests and to strengthen their land rights.
Environmentalists say that indigenous communities are the best protectors of the forest, often against violent encroachment of loggers and land grabbers.
"There is no way to talk about emissions reductions without the participation of indigenous people," said Telma Taurepang, a member of the Taurepang indigenous tribe and coordinator of the Union of Indigenous Women of the Brazilian Amazon.
Ms Taurepang said she did not believe the money would bring real benefit to indigenous people as global leaders still fail to sufficiently consult them, particularly in countries like Brazil where governments strongly support mining and industrial agriculture.
More than 30 financial institutions, with more than $8.7trillion in assets under management, also said they would make "best efforts" to eliminate deforestation related to cattle, palm oil, soy and pulp production by 2025.