Infrastructure megaprojects risk pushing the world’s remaining forests past a “dangerous tipping point” and making climate targets unachievable, a report says.
Tens of thousands of miles of roads and railways are planned alongside mines and dams, opening up the forests of South America, south-east Asia and central Africa to destruction, according to the report by a coalition of 25 research and conservation organisations called the New York Declaration on Forests Assessment Partners. Today, almost half of all large mines – more than 1,500 – are in forests.
In 2014, 50 countries and 50 of the world’s biggest companies backed the declaration, pledging to cut deforestation by 50% by 2020 and end the destruction of forests by 2030.
But the 2020 goal has been missed and deforestation is rising.
The report found that many countries and businesses had introduced regulations and plans but implementation remained poor. Only 10% of 225 companies that mine in forests responded to the report’s authors’ request for information about their biodiversity commitments.
“Forests are at a dangerous tipping point and these large-scale projects could push us over the edge,” said Erin Matson, a senior consultant at Climate Focus and co-author of the report. “There’s a very small – and closing – window of opportunity now to rethink these projects. Governments, companies and investors need to step up and act quickly to avoid further harm to people, wildlife, and nature.”
Franziska Haupt, the lead author of the report and also at Climate Focus, said: “Forests are absolutely essential. If we don’t stop deforestation, we won’t meet our climate targets. Infrastructure and mining are probably the biggest threat to forests, maybe even more important than farming, because they really open up forests for these other drivers and create access for global markets to these remote areas.”
Robert Nasi, the head of the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor), one of the NYDF assessment partners, said: “We are living in a dream world of pledges but a reality of little progress, lack of transparency, vested interests and short termism. Alas, reality will always catch us up.”
Aidan Davy, at the International Council on Mining and Metals, which has 27 mining company members, said: “We need mining companies across the industry to commit to higher standards of performance on biodiversity, and other environmental, social and governance areas which is the purpose of ICMM’s mining principles.”
The ICCM also called on governments to ban mines in forest areas of greatest conservation value and enforce stronger protective measures.
The report by the NYDF assessment partners, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Chatham House, and the World Wildlife Fund, found that megaprojects involving transport corridors were planned or under development in most of the critical tropical forest regions. “Even just planned projects already create an incentive for land speculators,” Haupt said.
The governments of five Amazon countries are investing $27bn (GBP20bn) over the next five years to build or upgrade more than 7,500 miles (12,000km) of roads, the report says, which would lead to deforestation of about 2.4m hectares.
In Indonesia, the 2,500-mile Trans-Papua highway will cut through Lorentz National Park, increasing access to more than 50,000 hectares of mining concessions inside the park, while a railway planned for Kalimantan would open areas for coalmining and palm oil production. In Papua New Guinea, two plans would double the length of the country’s road network by late 2022, the report says.
An infrastructure boom in sub-Saharan Africa involves dozens of international development corridors to export minerals and energy, the report says. The corridors would cut across 400 protected areas and degrade an additional 1,800.
“People need improved access, but these are not highways designed to prioritise linking communities to health care or economic opportunities,” said Anthony Bebbington, a mining and expert and report author. “Their purpose is to make it easier and cheaper to extract natural capital in ways that benefit economic elites above all.”
The report said some governments had improved regulations, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo reforming land planning and Indonesia setting ambitious goals, though the latter have since been weakened.
Brazil’s government has opened indigenous territories to mining and the Trump administration in the US has ended the requirement of federal agencies to consider the indirect environmental impacts of new infrastructure.
The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an NYDF assessment partner, invited 225 mining companies to report on their biodiversity efforts. Of the 23 that replied, and a further 22 that were analysed, few shared specific targets for action, said Morgan Gillespy, the global director of forests at CDP.
The report sets out steps to deliver forest protection. “We can do things differently,” Haupt said. “What we’re talking about is not pie in the sky.”
One step is ensuring the benefits of forests are included when assessing megaprojects. Matson said: “If the true value of forests was factored in – reducing climate change, protecting animal habitats and reducing the spread of zoonotic diseases [like the coronavirus], keeping water sources clean and a long list of other benefits without a price tag – then many of these projects would never get the green light,.”
Another step is considering alternative ways to develop poorer areas. Anne Larson, a team leader at Cifor, said: “There is still a fundamental disconnect between what governments and companies think development has to look like and the kind of actions needed for healthy livelihoods and a healthy planet.
“Securing rights and supporting sustainable livelihoods of indigenous people and other local communities would go a long way toward reducing deforestation.”