Glasgow Declaration Requires a Reckoning in Northern Forests

The international arena is littered with the vestiges of forest declarations that have garnered much fanfare and, ultimately, withered. The Glasgow Declaration on Forests, announced yesterday at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (COP 26), risks sharing the same fate unless Canada and other countries in the Global North finally take responsibility for their own unsustainable forest loss.

The Glasgow Declaration, which commits its 105 signatories to halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030, provides a welcome reassertion that achieving our global climate targets requires protecting and restoring forests—our most vital natural climate allies. It also adopts strong commitments to addressing tropical deforestation and a long-overdue recognition that addressing forest loss and land degradation depends on upholding Indigenous and community rights. However, this Declaration rests on top of a broken international policy foundation that continues to paper over the destruction of climate-critical forests in the Global North.

Clearcut in Ontario

River Jordan for NRDC

Over the past thirty years of international forest policy, the Global North has effectively created a regime in its own image—one that directs attention on tropical deforestation while ignoring its own culpability in eroding the world’s forests. It has done so, in large part, by defining terms such as “deforestation” and “forest loss” to narrowly apply only to industrial practices that actually convert a forest to another land use entirely, such as a palm oil plantation or urban development.

In the Global North, where forests are dominated by industrial logging rather than agricultural conversion, industry and governments largely do not consider clearcutting as “forest loss”—the barren clearcuts strewn across boreal and temperate regions that leave a carbon debt that can last for centuries are still technically deemed forests. To governments like Canada, a clearcut is a healthy forest. To industry, it is “sustainable forest management.”

The result is an international policy dynamic that fails to hold countries—even those calling for an end to tropical deforestation—accountable for the clearcutting of boreal and temperate forests, which are some of the most carbon-dense forests in the world, and under severe threat from industry. While all eyes are on the tropics, the first- and third-highest intact forest loss in the world is happening in Russia and Canada, respectively—both predominantly boreal regions. 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, all also countries with boreal forest. 

The Glasgow Declaration, through its focus on addressing “deforestation” and “forest loss,” risks providing further license for the Global North to continue its current practices. The Declaration’s language around “sustainable management” enshrines industry jargon that has no grounding in climate science and provides a green cover for unsustainable clearcutting in irreplaceable primary forests. Its language around ending “land degradation” is potentially promising, as that actually captures the impacts of industrial logging in Canada and other countries.

Ultimately, however, the Declaration is going to live or die based on whether individual countries in the Global North are willing to break out of the current regressive framework. The Global North’s failure to accept responsibility for its toll on forests and the climate not only jeopardizes the protection of vital boreal and temperate forests, but also undermines countries’ credibility in their efforts to protect tropical forests from deforestation and degradation.

It is a central reason why, time and again, these forest declarations have failed. Among the biggest disappointments was the New York Declaration on Forests, signed in 2014 by over 200 governments, companies, civil society organizations, and Indigenous Peoples. The New York Declaration committed the signatories, including Canada, Sweden, and Norway, to halving deforestation by 2020 and ending it by 2030, but largely left Northern countries off the hook. Seven years later, deforestation everywhere continues at its rapacious pace.    

As the Declaration’s implementation unfolds, all eyes will be especially fixated on Canada. Canada’s boreal forest is among the world’s most carbon-dense ecosystems, storing twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves, and double the carbon per acre as tropical forests. Yet, despite its commitments on natural climate solutions and forest protection, Canada has been at the forefront of perpetuating the erasure of Northern forest loss, hiding its unsustainable clearcutting of climate-critical primary forests behind a green veneer.  

As NRDC, alongside Nature Canada, Environmental Defence Canada, and Nature Québec highlighted in a report last week, Canada continues to embrace the fiction that its clearcutting of primary forests is compatible with a climate-safe future through a forest accounting framework that understates industrial logging’s emissions by more than 80 million metric tons CO2 per year—more than 10% of Canada’s overall annual emissions. Although the atmosphere does not see a difference between carbon emitted from forests and smokestacks, Canada also exempts its logging industry from its carbon pricing system, eliminating incentives for it to adopt climate-friendlier practices.

For the Declaration to truly reverse the fortunes of the world’s forests, the Canadian government needs to recognize and address the flaws at the foundation of its forest policies and end its near-carte blanche for logging in primary forests. In doing so, it can help lead other countries in the Global North, such as Russia and Sweden, to reexamine their own broken frameworks and unsustainable practices.

COP 26 has been dubbed “The Nature COP” to reflect the Parties’ high aspirations for protecting the world’s climate-critical lands. The Glasgow Declaration can be a key step toward advancing urgently needed efforts to prioritize forests’ role in achieving a climate-safe future. But, for Glasgow to succeed where other declarations have failed, countries in the Global North need to shed their forest façades; break free of 30 years of intransigence; and, this time, embrace true transformative change.

FOR MORE: On Friday, join a panel of Indigenous leaders, government officials, scientists, and policy experts to discuss the need for change in our Northern forests.

About the Authors

Jennifer Skene

Natural Climate Solutions Policy Manager, International Program

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