COP26: UK 'could have done more' to halt deforestation

ICAI review describes approach to preventing irreversible biodiversity loss as satisfactory

An illegally deforested area of Brazil's rainforest.  AP
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The UK “could have done more” in its efforts to protect forests and biodiversity globally, according to a report by the nation’s aid watchdog.

A review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), published on Thursday, examined how the UK spent £1.2 billion ($1.66bn) over a five-year period between 2015 and 2020 on halting deforestation and preventing irreversible biodiversity loss.

It has graded it as satisfactory and praised some of its aid programmes, including a project to reduce the effect of cocoa production on forests in Ghana, efforts to strengthen land-use planning and security of tenure in Indonesia and its promotion of sustainable ranching to reduce illegal forest clearing in Colombia.

But it has criticised the UK's lack of a “clearly prioritised strategy”, which it says has led to its portfolio being “too widely spread, both geographically and thematically”.

“The UK aid programmes we reviewed are, in general, well directed to tackling the prevailing drivers of deforestation and biodiversity loss and highly relevant to the global challenges facing our planet,” the report concluded.

“Over the review period, the UK has supported a range of delivery models and approaches to addressing deforestation and biodiversity loss. However, this diversity of activities has come about through piecemeal decision-making on individual programmes, rather than as a strategic choice. Given that the aid resources spent by the UK are dwarfed by the scale of the challenge, a more strategic approach to prioritising resources is needed if real impact is to be achieved.”

It also criticised the UK for “not sufficiently” monitoring the impact of programmes on the risks of unintended consequences on forest-dwelling communities and says there is not enough evidence to draw conclusions on the overall impact of the projects.

Global rates of deforestation and biodiversity loss are catastrophic
Dr Tamsyn Barton, ICAI Chief Commissioner

ICAI Chief Commissioner, Dr Tamsyn Barton, said improvements need to be made if the government is to meet its own targets.

“Global rates of deforestation and biodiversity loss are catastrophic,” she said.

“Between 1990 and 2020, the world lost 178 million hectares of forests each year. The UK has been an active participant in international initiatives to protect forests and biodiversity, spending over £1 billion in aid on protecting forests and biodiversity between 2015 and 2020.

“It is therefore very encouraging to see the positive impact UK aid is having on these two key issues, particularly in the illegal logging and timber trade, and to observe good co-operation between the three government departments.

“However, there is more to be done, especially with regards to measuring the effectiveness of interventions and ensuring a clear strategic focus.

“Overall, we find that the work done over the review period has laid some solid foundations for building an effective portfolio as the government doubles its climate finance, and commits 30 per cent of that funding on nature, but that some improvements will be required, if the programmes are to achieve the government’s policy objectives.”

The watchdog noted that measuring results in the protection of forests and biodiversity is challenging, and that this was an area where the UK could be doing better.

Because of the government’s weaknesses in results measurement, ICAI said it was difficult to reach conclusions on the overall effectiveness of the portfolio.

The ICAI has made five recommendations for the government to improve its approach to tackling these issues.

It calls on the government to have a “tighter strategic focus on concentrating resources to increase the impact” on tackling deforestation and biodiversity loss.

“All programmes addressing deforestation and biodiversity loss should be monitored and evaluated against common, measurable indicators designed specifically for assessing deforestation and biodiversity impacts,” the report says.

The review also advises that regular independent external evaluations of the programmes should be carried out to shape funding decisions and to assess the social effects of the projects to minimise negative impacts on local communities.

It also recommends “greater prioritisation” of gender issues in policies and programming to ensure that women benefit from investments in forestry and biodiversity.

However, it praised the role the UK has played internationally.

“UK efforts to galvanise international action on the drivers of deforestation and biodiversity loss have been effective when structured as a sustained and properly resourced campaign,” it said.

“The UK has played a significant role at a global level in supporting co-ordinated action, helping to secure a number of global commitments.”

The projects are run by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw off a rebellion in parliament and won backing for a contentious cut in foreign aid.

Aid will remain at 0.5 per cent of Britain’s national income – down from the 0.7 per cent threshold in place until earlier this year – after MPs approved the government’s plan by 333 votes to 298.

Ministers said the cut of about £4 billion ($5.53bn) was temporary and would revert to the previous level when public finances recover from Covid-19.

Updated: July 14, 2021, 11:01 PM