Comment: The impact of the extractives sector on forest loss has been largely overlooked, says CDP's Morgan Gillespy. With the New York Declaration on Forests' goal of halving deforestation by 2020 in tatters, there's an urgent need to press laggards for action
Six years ago, a group of companies and investors, governments and civil society groups pledged to halve deforestation by 2020, on the way to ending deforestation by 2030. With deforestation now on the rise in Brazil and across the tropics, it’s clear that the New York Declaration on Forests has failed to achieve this goal.
This lack of progress is even more concerning as it becomes increasingly clear we can’t put a stop to future pandemics or win climate or sustainable development goals if we don’t protect forests.
What is most problematic is that there are new frontiers in forest loss picking up the pace. Most attention has been paid to the role of soft commodities, such as soy and palm oil, in deforestation. As a result, the impact of the mining sector – the fourth-largest driver of forest loss globally – has been consistently overlooked.
In Brazil, studies have shown that forest impacts from mining can extend 50 kilometres or more around mine sites
With the mining sector, which was relatively unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic, forging ahead with operations in the remote forests of Latin America, south-east Asia and central Africa, it’s time to urgently address the industry’s under-studied impact on forests.
Studies have shown that the worst impacts of mining on forests are not necessarily the extraction of metals, minerals and fossil fuels per se. It’s rather the development of roads and other infrastructure needed to transport the extracted resources for export that can do the most damage as they open access to forests enabling further deforestation. Tellingly, most new deforestation occurs within one kilometre of a road. In Brazil, studies have shown that forest impacts from mining can extend 50 kilometres or more around mine sites.
CDP runs the global disclosure platform for investors, companies, cities, states and regions to manage their environmental impacts. Companies are invited to disclose through the platform on their efforts to measure and manage deforestation risk each year. In 2019, we expanded our focus to include the extractive sector, and asked some 225 metal, mining and coal companies operating in forested areas to report on their actions to measure and manage their impact on forests and biodiversity.
Of those 225 companies invited to report on their efforts, only 23 responded in time for their data to be analysed for the NYDF assessment report. We analysed an additional 22 companies to provide an analysis of 45 key companies with the highest number of mining operations in forests.
More than three-quarters of the companies we assessed made a biodiversity-related commitment, and most surveyed companies also indicated that biodiversity or the environment are considered at the highest levels, by their boards or at the senior management level.
While this is encouraging, the survey results indicate more work needs to be done. Only about a third of companies disclosed details of their biodiversity offset projects, and few shared clear and specific targets for action. Furthermore, only a handful of companies are adopting SMART targets: those that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
Efforts by the soft commodity industries to slash deforestation offer lessons in successes and failures
It’s time for extractive companies, and governments as well, to step up their game by improving transparency and implementing management plans that protect forests. Efforts by the soft commodity industries to slash deforestation offer lessons in successes and failures.
Using companies like Barrick Gold Corporation, Petra Diamonds, Anglo American and Newmont Corporation as models, mining companies can more effectively minimise their impacts on forests through improved transparency and the application of the “mitigation hierarchy”. This tool, commonly applied in Environmental Impact Assessments, lays out the steps that can be taken by companies to effectively minimise forest impacts and damage to biodiversity.
As the diversity of the New York Declaration on Forests endorsers shows, ending deforestation is a collective endeavour. With the evidence of its impact clear, it is time for the mining industry to play its part in ending forest loss.
Morgan Gillespy is global director of forests at CDP.