In the year since more than 140 countries signed onto the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, promising to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, there’s been little room for celebration. Despite some iterative marketplace wins, the world has continued to flout urgent calls from scientists to end the loss of forests essential to meeting global climate targets. In the face of this disappointing inaugural year, a coalition of 26 countries and the EU opened this year’s UN climate conference (COP27) with a renewal of their Glasgow vows, launching a Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership to deliver on last year’s promises.
However, the Partnership, from its inception, faces a foundational defect that has plagued forest policy for decades and, left unaddressed, threatens to unravel the entire Glasgow framework: many of the members are unwilling to acknowledge the forest destruction within their own borders.
For more than thirty years, international policy has rested on a myth born of colonialism and global inequities: that forest loss is unique to the Global South, a consequence of tropical countries’ poor governance and backwards industry practices. Yet, while global attention remained fixed on the Amazon, the Congo, and Indonesia, countries like Canada, Sweden, Russia, and the United States have skirted accountability for their own unsustainable practices in some of the most carbon-rich forests in the world.
Across the boreal and temperate forests of the Global North, industrial logging is driving some of the world’s fastest loss of climate-critical forests. Canada, which clearcuts more than 1.3 million acres annually, ranks third globally in intact forest landscape loss, behind only Russia and Brazil. In the last 60 years, Sweden has lost over 70% of its lichen-rich forests to the logging industry and ranks first globally in tree loss per capita--just ahead of Norway, Canada, and Russia. A recent study found that logging in the EU for biomass is destroying its forests’ ability to act as carbon sinks. Logging still threatens vast stretches of old-growth and mature forests on federal lands in the U.S.
The climate toll is staggering. The Global North stewards some of the most carbon-rich terrestrial ecosystems in the world. The Canadian boreal forest alone stores twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves. Logging these forests unleashes vast amounts of this carbon—emissions that, to the atmosphere, are qualitatively indistinct from the impact of fossil fuels. In Canada, the logging industry, according to the government’s own data, accounts for more than 10% of the country’s total emissions.
None of this is part of the Partnership’s agenda—largely because the Global North is unwilling to admit there’s even a problem.
The Global North, through definitional workarounds and shrouding logging’s impact behind euphemisms like “sustainable forest management,” has written itself out of the forest impacts narrative. They erase their role in driving forest degradation by hiding behind international definitions, under which razing an irreplaceable, never-before-logged primary forest in Canada, or carbon-rich old-growth in Sweden doesn’t count as “deforestation” because the promise of regrowing saplings means the stump-filled landscape is still, technically, a forest. Never mind that the forest, even if it does regrow, will take centuries to recover its previous value.
Similarly, in its own form of climate denial, the Global North has drawn a veil over industrial logging’s monumental emissions impact. Canada, for example, doesn’t report the logging industry’s significant carbon footprint, and even employs a biased forest carbon accounting approach that effectively buries the sector’s impact. National and international policymakers have not only elided the logging industry’s role as a high-emitting industry, but created a dangerous gap in global climate ambition, echoing industry talking points about logging as a “carbon-neutral” industry, and even billing it as a climate solution.
This, in turn, has helped to justify dangerous land-use policies that ignore the irreplaceable value of primary and older forests, as well as offsets regimes that treat logging’s emissions as somehow distinct from fossil fuels’ climate impact. It also misses the immense opportunity that can come from incentivizing climate-friendlier logging practices and more sustainable and conservation-focused economies.
This lack of accountability doesn’t just hamper forest protection in the Global North. It undermines northern countries’ credibility in calling for an end to forest loss in the tropics and has been a prime reason why so many forest commitments have failed over the years.
While the international regime remains grounded in myth making, there are glimmers of newfound introspection from northern leaders. This year, the Biden Administration issued an Executive Order calling for a survey of old-growth forests in the U.S. Policymakers in New York and the EU are considering legislation that would address forest supply chains’ impacts in the Global North. Investors have signaled their expectation that the marketplace address forest impacts globally, including in boreal forests.
The Glasgow Declaration marked a potential turning point for the global protection of climate-critical forests. To deliver on this, however, the members of the Partnership from the Global North have to to move beyond the decades of obfuscation and deflection. Countries like Canada, the United States, and Sweden need to move beyond tree planting, funding for the tropics, and offsets regimes and address the climate catastrophe happening in their own forests. Ultimately, Glasgow’s success depends on a whole-of-planet approach, grounded in scientific integrity, global equity, and a recognition of the indispensable climate value of our northern forests.