By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More companies have promised to cut back deforestation in their supply chains for agricultural commodities since the Paris climate change deal last December, but progress in implementing those pledges is mixed, research groups said on Thursday.
Under the New York Declaration on Forests, launched in September 2014, some 190 governments, companies, indigenous peoples' organizations, green groups and think tanks are aiming to help the private sector eliminate deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities by 2020.
The first report to track such corporate sustainability promises said 108 companies had announced 212 new commitments since December 2015, boosting the total to 415 businesses.
Levels vary between commodities: of around 630 companies assessed, 59 percent of those that source or produce palm oil had made commitments, and 53 percent in the wood and paper industry. But for soy, it was only 21 percent, and for cattle products as low as 12 percent.
Those big four globally-traded commodities are responsible for 40 percent of deforestation.
Marco Albani, director of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, wrote in the report that with just four years left to the end of 2020, "there is still a lot to be done".
"More companies need to commit, and many more need to move much faster to operationalize those commitments," he said.
Less than half the assessed companies have time-bound action plans, robust monitoring systems remain rare, and only 45 percent of firms are reporting on compliance with deforestation policies, the report added.
Most of the companies with forest commitments are manufacturers and retailers, of which nearly 90 percent are headquartered in Europe, North America or Australia - where they are more likely to feel the heat from green consumers.
Producers, processors and traders of commodities, as well companies based in developing countries, have been slower to act, the report noted.
The exceptions are palm oil producers in Southeast Asia and meat-processing companies headquartered in Brazil, it added.
Charlotte Streck, director of Climate Focus, a think tank that led the report, said a large, unknown number of traders and small and medium-sized producers "are all very happy to deforest and then supply to China" and other emerging markets.
"This is the part that cannot be captured by the supply chain commitments of the big companies - this needs to be coming from governments," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Governments should enforce laws and regulations, and crack down on the corruption that helps fuel deforestation, she added.
Companies interviewed for the report said poor land-use planning, weak law enforcement and inadequate monitoring and accountability systems in forest countries where they operate make it hard for them to achieve their goals.
BIGGEST THREAT: BEEF
Streck said the biggest threat to forests among agricultural commodities probably comes from beef, because the area logged for cattle ranching is nine times larger than to grow oil palm, yet has received far less attention.
At the same time, demand for beef is rising in emerging economies, particularly in Asia. "We don't have an industry standard," she said, adding that cattle change hands multiple times, making it hard to trace forest loss to specific animals.
In a second report looking at progress across all 10 goals set by the New York Declaration on Forests, 12 international research groups said no new data had been released since 2015 on rates of global forest loss, when its first report was issued.
The declaration set a goal to at least halve the rate of loss of natural forests globally by 2020, and strive to end it by 2030.
The annual net loss of natural forest area appears to be falling, thanks to significantly more regeneration, restoration and reforestation. But excluding those new trees, the yearly rate of tropical forest clearance has risen compared with the first decade of this century, the report said.
"What we really want is to stop (gross) natural forest loss because of biodiversity and other important reasons," Streck said. Efforts to date are "not enough".
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)