Rainforests are rightly considered to be the first—and last—line of defense in global efforts to combat climate change. The same rainforests that protect billions of people from rising carbon emissions, however, can also be stripped to provide economic security for millions. This generation’s challenge will be reconciling the competing priorities and divergent economic realities of the developed and developing worlds—a challenge that could define the future of the climate crisis.
In late June, Norway offered an apparent solution. Through the United Nations’ Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), Norway transferred $17 million to the West African nation of Gabon to help protect its rainforest. Norway has claimed that the initiative is meant to discourage—and even stop—logging and deforestation, thus protecting Gabon’s rainforest. And in Gabon, it’s a welcome notion. Even before CAFI, the country’s forests minister had announced plans to sell carbon credits to offset emissions and enable investments in green projects.
But there is more to this initiative than meets the eye. On the surface, the project is great news: It acknowledges that developing countries will not be able to transition to sustainable economies—and at the necessary speed—without financial support. But this initiative conceals the responsibility that Western nations bear for the demand they generate and the resources they profit from. In fact, after China, the majority of Gabon’s timber exports go to the EU, which has previously been accused of “greenwashing” its investments, or falsely claiming that they are environmentally friendly. Without greater acknowledgement of the double standard that developing countries face—and a more equitable inclusion of these nations in environmental protection efforts—the climate crisis will never end.
Rainforests are vital wardens of biodiversity and significant carbon sinks, storing more carbon than they release and therefore offsetting the carbon dioxide released through human activity. The Gabonese rainforest, for instance, annually absorbs almost 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which about equals the yearly emissions from Greece and Austria combined. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon rainforest is home to 10 percent of all known species.
With rising deforestation, however, these rainforests are under threat. Worse, the rate of deforestation is accelerating, eroding the rainforests’ ability to serve as carbon sinks. Some of this deforestation is due to the shortsighted and damaging policies of populist leaders like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. His dismissal of science can help explain why deforestation in Brazil reached a 14-year peak in May despite his promises to curb it.
But this fails to explain why the global rate of deforestation has accelerated. One answer lies in the economic dilemma that developing countries like Brazil and Gabon face: Make a living, or protect the environment.
While rainforests are vital to the long-term habitability of our planet, they are also critical sources of income for societies working to spur economic development.
In Brazil, this means that the Amazon is often converted into land to produce beef and soy—products that are then sold to wealthy nations like those in the EU. Gabon faces a similar situation: Tropical forests, which cover more than 80 percent of the country, are its second-largest source of profit. Environmental protection is therefore impossible without risking the few industries that these countries can meaningfully depend on.
Western nations must therefore offer developing nations the financial assistance needed to promote both environmental protection and economic development. CAFI is among the first initiatives of its kind, and it remains to be seen how it will impact Gabon’s economy and environment. But the way in which CAFI disguises the harm that developed countries inflict on the environment is concerning—and misleading.
Norway is often correctly seen as a champion in the fight against climate change—and it has made tremendous strides in limiting harmful greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of its car sales are now electric—a higher percentage than any other country in the world—and almost all of its power is generated by hydroelectric energy, which harnesses moving water instead of fossil fuels for electricity.
But there is also another Norway, one that is Western Europe’s biggest oil and gas producer. Not only does this Norway drill for fossil fuels in the Arctic—a region that is already suffering from record-smashing heat waves, forest fires, and ozone depletion—but it is actually increasing its extraction. And others have taken notice: Two NGOs, Greenpeace and Young Friends of the Earth, have taken Norway to the European Court of Human Rights over accusations that it is directly damaging the livelihoods of future generations. They are right to be concerned. The Arctic is melting at an alarming speed, and scientists fear that the region has already passed an irreversible tipping point.
Instead of paying Gabon to stop its deforestation—which harms the country’s economy—Norway should stop its own environmental destruction.
A look at Norway’s sovereign wealth fund can help explain this blatant greenwashing: The petrochemical industry is the principal source of Norway’s wealth of $1.4 trillion. But with a population of under 6 million people, Norway is wealthy enough to survive without further exploiting the environment. Unlike Gabon, Norway does not have to choose between maintaining the barest standard of living and protecting the environment. Instead, Norway has realized a high standard of living by eschewing the environmental protections that it—and similarly minded countries—is now practically forcing on the developing world.
With CAFI, Norway also failed to consider which activities or industries would replace the ones that are being halted. Gabon’s rainforest is already known to be exploited by sophisticated mafia-style criminal gangs, which are often paid by Chinese firms that invest heavily in Gabon’s timber industry. It is possible that after the introduction of CAFI, this highly lucrative illegal logging—which is already responsible for the majority of forest-linked emissions—will surge and lead to greater environmental degradation. What will happen if CAFI’s financial support disappears? And why should any country agree to dismantle the wealthiest sector of its economy on the promise that another country will offset the damage done? The demand for Gabonese timber will ultimately always exist.
Gabon wouldn’t be the first country in which Europeans have pursued an environmental agenda that leaves these vital questions unanswered. In May, the European Union announced its intention to ban imports of palm oil as a biofuel from Malaysia. This policy, if implemented, would devastate the Malaysian economy. The country’s palm oil industry is the reason many millions of Malaysians have escaped poverty and currently supports 650,000 smallholder farmers.
The EU claims that this ban on palm oil is meant to prevent deforestation, which in some instances has been linked to palm oil cultivation. In lieu of palm oil, the EU has announced its plans to shift to domestically produced vegetable oils, such as rapeseed, soybean, and sunflower oil. But these industries are markedly worse for the environment than palm oil as they all require more land, water, and fertilizer to produce the same output; their only benefit is that they are produced in, and generate revenue for, the EU.
With these palm oil alternatives having an even more detrimental environmental impact, eliminating palm oil from biofuels would not stop climate change—it would accelerate it. Malaysian farmers may also sell their product to countries with few environmental regulations but high demand, such as China and India.
To add insult to injury, Malaysia’s palm oil sector has actually made tremendous progress toward sustainability—progress that the EU is actively ignoring, insofar as it complicates the greenwashing of its own seed oil industries. Almost 90 percent of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations are now certified in accordance with strict environmental guidelines that curtail deforestation, encourage biodiversity, and promote labor rights—and meet EU regulations.
These instances highlight Europe’s hypocrisy and the double standard that developing countries face in environmental protection efforts. Malaysia has almost twice as much forest cover, as a percentage of land, as the EU yet is still somehow the culpable party. Europe expects the developed world to bear the burden of stopping climate change, even as it—second only to China—contributes to 16 percent of all deforestation through trade and the destruction of its own forests.
Developed nations must, at the very least, question their own historical paths to economic prosperity and their current environmental practices. If they are not willing to do so themselves, they should listen to the developing world as it expresses its concerns and voices its frustrations.
None of this is to say that poor countries do not care about the environment. A climate crisis would impact us all. But any potential solution to the crisis will rely on inclusive discussions and equitable outcomes. Developing countries should be invited to work alongside rich nations in agreeing on global environmental protection practices that are mutually beneficial. Developing nations need to be partners—not pawns—in global efforts to combat climate change.
Anything short of that would be, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.
By: Muhammad Magassy for Foreign Policy