The planet's forests are essential for life. They support a staggering 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity, and many of the 'ecosystem services' that we depend on -- food security, watershed protection and fertile soils.
1.6 billion people worldwide depend on forests for food, medicines and fuel, as well as their jobs and livelihoods. This includes 60 million indigenous people, who are almost entirely dependent on forests for their unique cultures and livelihoods.
Forests are also the lungs of our planet, and play a critical role in regulating our climate. They are second only to the oceans as the largest global store of carbon. When they are cleared, burned or degraded, they turn from carbon sink to carbon source, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To limit global temperature rises to two degrees, the IPCC believes that we must put an end to tropical deforestation by 2030.
Growing populations, with growing incomes, have sent demand for commodities like palm oil, soy, paper and beef soaring, to the extent that production of these four commodities now accounts for half of all tropical deforestation. We use these products to cook, clean and wash. To feed ourselves, our families and our animals. To build our homes and to heat them.
But at this moment this is at the expense of the world's forests. Deforestation continues at alarming rates in many countries. Approximately 13 million hectares of forests were lost each year in the period 2000-2010, including some of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth. This is largely due to ineffective land-use planning, unclear land rights, weak forest governance and enforcement, as well as misaligned economic and political incentives. A recent report concluded that 71 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was due to commercial cultivation, and of that deforestation, 49 percent was caused by illegal clearing to make way for agricultural products.
It does not have to be this way. Large-scale deforestation can be prevented, while increasing food production through better, smarter agriculture. Launched a few days ago, the flagship report of the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate, Better Growth, Better Climate, argues that if just 12 percent of the world's degraded lands were restored to production, we could feed another 200 million people and farmers' incomes would be raised by $40 billion dollars a year.
Brazil has made huge strides in reducing deforestation in the Amazon. Since 2005, rates of deforestation have dropped 70 percent below the historical average. 3.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide have been kept out of the atmosphere through a combination of public policy and private sector commitments. At the same time it has increased its food production by nearly half. Brazil has shown us we can have both -- forests and food. And its results have made it a world leader in climate change mitigation.
Not before time, the world is waking up to the risks of severe climate change and the crucial role of forest protection. Forested countries are developing plans to slow, halt and reverse deforestation. Nearly 3 billion dollars has been made available to reward good performance. Brazil and Indonesia are already receiving such funds and many more have the opportunity to do so through the World Bank's Carbon Fund. These efforts are being complemented in Europe and the US by regulations to reduce illegal logging.
My own company, Unilever, is one of 400 members of the Consumer Goods Forum. Representing over 3 trillion dollars of revenues, CGF members have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. Major producers of commodities like Wilmar, Golden Agri Resources, Asia Pulp and Paper and Cargill have made similar or equivalent commitments. Through the Banking Environment Initiative, the financial sector is working to help its clients achieve these commitments. And the World Business Council for Sustainable Development is driving sustainable forest solutions through its Action2020 programme.
But no one sector can protect forests on its own. Governments, businesses and civil society need to work together. This is why the Tropical Forest Alliance has been created -- a global public private partnership involving the companies of the Consumer Goods Forum, the governments of Norway, Netherlands, UK, US, Indonesia and Liberia and dozens of NGOs.
The goal of the TFA is to help business remove deforestation from its supply chains whilst at the same time promote economic and social development. It is setting up practical programmes of work in Indonesia, Colombia and West Africa, and has ambitions to do much more.
But to get to even greater scale we need to align the actions of business with the public policy agenda. Commitments by companies need to be accompanied by legislation with teeth, both in forest nations and countries importing commodities stemming from illegal deforestation. Providing financial incentives, for both local communities and national governments, to conserve and restore forests also makes sense. It will put an economic value on these precious natural resources and drive the right behaviours from both government and business. It will benefit local communities. In Africa where trees are often cut for fire wood and charcoal we need to link the stewardship of forests with the fight against poverty reduction.
So we need a powerful alliance of business, governments, indigenous peoples and NGOs to come together. Companies to commit to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. Producing country governments to commit to tackling complex issues like land use planning and land rights. Donor governments to make more funding available.
Deforestation is not just one of the great challenges in the fight against climate change, it is the most immediate and the most urgent. We are not yet acting at either the speed or scale that the problem demands. Yet we can win this battle.
If we tackle deforestation in the right way, the benefits will be far-reaching -- greater food security, improved livelihoods for millions of small farmers and indigenous people, more prosperous rural economies and above all, a more stable climate. The Summit in New York is a critical opportunity for taking the next step on this path.
This post is part of a month-long series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with a variety of events being held in September recognizing the threats posed by climate change. Those events include the UN's Climate Summit 2014 (to be held Sept. 23, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York) and Climate Week NYC (Sept. 22-28, 2014, throughout New York City). To see all the posts in the series, read here.
Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever, Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and a member of the B Team.