As the national action on climate change accelerates, corporate agendas turn to energy efficiency and deployment of renewables to reduce carbon footprints. In this context, the International Day of Forests offers a timely reminder of a crucial, but often overlooked ally, namely, forests, in this effort.

Over the last few decades forests have absorbed as much as 30 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions. But the role businesses can play through their supply chain to halt deforestation linked to production of a wide range of everyday goods, remains an area of significant, untapped potential.

India’s demand for internationally traded forest-based commodities like timber, pulp, viscose cellulose fibre, palm oil and natural rubber that form the base of everyday goods is substantial and growing.

The opportunity to contribute significantly to addressing climate change lies in driving greater sustainability in these important supply chains.

At the root of the issue is the link between production and the clearing of natural forest to make room for the establishment of large scale commercial plantations, particularly in the tropical forests of South East Asia.

The adverse consequences for both people and the planet are increasingly apparent — deforestation rates in Indonesia have reached record rates. Illustrative of this was the recent ‘haze’ in South East Asia linked to the burning of tropical forests to make way for commercial plantation of timber and oil palm.

It was regarded as the worst environmental crisis of 2015 with emissions generated each day from the burning exceeding that of the average daily emissions from all US economic activity.

Alliances to saving forests

In recognition of the need for collective effort to address these issues, a number of public and private initiatives have emerged in recent times. Regulatory frameworks such as FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) and EUTR (EU Timber Regulation) have been introduced in the United States and European Union, aimed at driving greater legality in global forestry supply chains.

The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) — an alliance of 400 companies including retailers, manufacturers and service providers across 70 countries — pledged in 2012 to achieve ‘zero net deforestation’ by 2020. Out of this commitment, the Tropical Forest Alliance was formed — a global public-private partnership which sees eight governments, 33 civil society organisations and 27 private sector companies partnering to tackle the drivers of deforestation associated with the sourcing of commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, and paper and pulp.

Even the finance sector has recognised the risks with 12 international banks joining with the CGF to form a ‘Soft Commodities Compact’ in 2013 to support a 2020 target for zero net deforestation in supply chains. Most strikingly, for the first time, in 2014, through the New York Declaration of Forests, dozens of governments, 30 of the world’s biggest companies, and more than 50 influential civil society and indigenous organisations came together to endorse a political declaration that sets a global timeline to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020, and strives to end it by 2030.

The Declaration calls for restoring forests and croplands of an area larger than India and, most significantly, lays out a specific role for the private sector in achieving these goals, through the development of ‘deforestation-free’ supply chains.

Corporate responsibility

Critical to all of this action is engagement by companies with their suppliers to understand and remove deforestation from their sourcing and deploying clear operating procedures, credible third-party verification, and transparent reporting on sustainability parameters.

By expanding their efforts on climate change to include their supply chains, Indian companies can play a significant part in reducing global deforestation and carbon emissions. Deforestation-free supply chains can become a reality if business plays its part.

These measures not only contribute to an important global cause but are also a means to protect brand value, improve supply chain resilience and meet the future requirements of an evolving customer base.

The writer is Director of Sustainable Business at WWF-India. Today is the International Day of Forests