In the lead-up to COP28, some hoped the UN’s 2023 climate summit would see nature and forests take center stage, as they did in negotiations over the last two years: COP26 in 2021 resulted in the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests, an ambitious pledge by over 100 countries to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. And the UN’s 15th Convention on Biodiversity in 2022 saw the adoption of the historic 30x30 Nature Goal, which aims to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030.

With much of the media attention at COP28 directed instead toward fossil fuel and food discussions, forests may appear to have been given short shrift. But things looked different outside the spotlight.

Those on the ground in Dubai witnessed a flurry of positive and important steps on forests, ranging from enhanced commitments to ending deforestation in the tropics to new financial support for forest action in developing countries. Here are just a few of the most noteworthy outcomes, along with what to watch in the coming year to see how these commitments translate to on-the-ground action.

Countries in the Tropics Launched a Raft of Forest Protection Initiatives

Recent climate reports make clear that there is little to no chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change unless deforestation ends this decade. But despite pledges to change course, deforestation has continued at a staggering pace — especially in the tropics. In 2022, the world lost 4.1 million hectares of tropical primary forests, the equivalent of losing 11 football (soccer) fields of forest per minute. This makes the actions taken by tropical forest countries at COP28 all the more important.

For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, the Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea announced a number of forest protection initiatives totaling $242 million in finance from public, private and civil society partners as part of the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership (FCLP). Colombia launched its Portfolio for Climate Action and Socio-Ecological Transition, which seeks to incorporate the protection of critical ecosystems into its national development plan. Costa Rica and Ghana announced an agreement to sell jurisdictional REDD+ carbon credits — a mechanism through which companies and wealthy countries can fund forest conservation in developing countries — to The Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) coalition, with at least ten corporate buyers agreeing to purchase the credits. And the Government of Honduras unveiled an initiative to rescue and conserve the country’s largest forest, the Moskitia, which is one of Mesoamerica’s “five great forests” and Central America’s second largest rainforest.

Aerial view of farm plots and fish ponds interspersed with forested areas.
At the Yangambi Engagement Landscape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, forests are interspersed with aquaculture and agriculture. The area, which supports farming, fishing, hunting, logging and other land-based livelihoods, offers an example of how sustainably managed forests can help drive local economic development. Photo by CIFOR/Flickr

President Lula Brought Renewed Attention to Brazil and the Amazon

At his first COP since returning to office, President Lula of Brazil helped bring renewed attention to rainforests and the Amazon, reinforcing the country’s commitment to ending deforestation by 2030 while linking the climate action agenda with the fight against inequality.

What Else Happened at COP28?

At COP28, negotiators agreed for the first time to transition away from fossil fuels, among other important decisions across renewable energy, loss and damage, adaptation and more. Explore top outcomes from COP28 here.

Most notably, Brazil proposed the creation of a global Tropical Forest Forever fund to finance forest conservation. This calls for $250 billion annually toward simple, area-based payments to countries based on the amount of forests they protect (rather than allocating payments based on calculated emissions reductions). In addition, Brazil’s development bank (BNDES) announced the Arc of the Restoration, a $200 million initiative to restore degraded areas in the Amazon forest by 2030. Its Ministry of Agriculture released the National Degraded Pasture Conversion Program, which aims to focus agricultural expansion on 40 million hectares of low-productivity degraded pastures rather than in forest areas. And the governor of the state of Para in the Brazilian Amazon, Helder Barbalho, launched a strategy to restore 5.6 million hectares of degraded land in the state while improving local livelihoods.

A line of people unload tree seedlings from a truck.
Community members near Santarem in the state of Para, Brazil, unload seedlings for a reforestation effort in the Amazon. Brazil is home to the majority of the Amazon rainforest, meaning its policies and actions are critical to the forest’s protection and preservation. Photo by Edward Parker/Alamy Stock Photo

Brazil, which is home to the world’s largest tropical forest, will host the G20 in 2024 and COP30 in 2025, placing the Amazon and all tropical forests at the forefront of climate and nature discussions. Leading up to these summits, one key area to watch will be whether and how Brazil works to advance and adapt its global forest fund concept to attract necessary public and private support.

The country’s own pathway to zeroing deforestation and decarbonizing its economy also remains somewhat unclear given competing domestic priorities. These include Brazil’s decisions to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and to auction over 600 oil exploration areas — including 21 in the Amazon River basin — just one day after the closing of COP28, as well as recent setbacks in its process of demarcating Indigenous lands.

More Finance Was Promised for Forest Action, along with New Accountability Measures

Importantly, countries have produced not only new commitments to forest action but also increased financing to support it. The historic Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, agreed at COP26, was accompanied by the Global Forest Finance Pledge — a 5-year, $12 billion dollar pledge underpinning countries’ actions to protect and restore forests. Its latest report for 2022 showed that in the first two years of the pledge, $5.7 billion, or 47% of the total promised finance, has already been directed toward forest-related programs in developing countries.

During COP28’s World Climate Action Summit (WCAS) on December 2, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced a contribution of $100 million in new finance for nature and climate projects, with an initial $30 million investment in the Ghanaian government’s Resilient Ghana plan to protect and restore nature, while Norway committed an additional $100 million in results-based payments to Indonesia for reductions in deforestation. The Norwegian Parliament also increased financial support to the country’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), which aims to protect tropical forests, to 4 billion NOK ($375 million) in 2024.

Three people in a canoe on the Amazon river surrounded by bright green forest.
Locals travel by boat in Leticia, Colombia, a city on the banks of the Amazon river. Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), in partnership with the U.K. and Germany, supports the Colombian government’s efforts to reduce deforestation in its rainforest. Photo by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment/Flickr

To more transparently track and report on such commitments, the Forests Declaration Assessment and WRI’s Systems Change Lab launched the Glasgow Leaders Declaration Dashboard. This will monitor collective progress amongst the signatories of all six articles of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Further, NICFI and the Bezos Earth Fund announced a new partnership allocating upwards of $200 million over four years to provide free, high-resolution satellite data on the world's rainforests. This data can be a key tool in implementing programs to monitor and halt forest destruction.

What’s Next for Forests on the Global Agenda?

Without an ambitious and concerted effort to protect and restore the world's forests, there are no viable pathways to meet global goals on limiting temperature rise and protecting biodiversity and nature. But despite the growth in forest-related commitments and pledges over the last few years, forests remain drastically undervalued in policies and markets.

Progress at COP28, including a heightened focus on tropical forests, is a promising step in the right direction. But the ultimate impact of these announcements and initiatives will hinge on how they are carried forward. Key questions remain coming out of Dubai, for instance:

  • Will the world see stronger, longer-term climate leadership from COP host countries? COP28 saw the UAE (its host in 2023) and China (host of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2022) issue a Joint Statement on Climate, Nature and People, signed by sixteen global partnerships and initiatives. This stresses the need to urgently address “climate change, biodiversity loss and land degradation together in a coherent, synergetic and holistic manner.” Looking forward, will the UAE treat this moment a springboard toward a new global role on sustainability issues? Will China adopt policies to deliver a nature-positive future, following both the joint statement and its announcement at COP 28 to join the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, a group of 118 nations committed to the global 30x30 Nature Goals? And how will it contribute to the UN Global Biodiversity Framework’s (GBF) goals on nature and finance, including targets to phase out or reform $500 million in environmentally damaging subsidies and mobilize at least $200 billion per year for nature by 2030?
  • Will Indigenous groups and local communities be recognized and included as full partners in forest activities? Indigenous peoples and local communities played a prominent role in many negotiations and events held in Dubai. For instance, Norway and Peru — in partnership with U.K., Germany, DRC, Fiji, Colombia, Ecuador, the U.S., Costa Rica and the Netherlands, and with the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC) — launched a platform for Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) to support their active participation in high-level discussions and emphasize the importance of securing forest tenure rights. Moving forward, greater attention should be placed on ensuring that finance flows to intact rainforests (those with high forest cover and low deforestation rates) and the Indigenous peoples who are often their guardians. It is critical that these groups be fully and effectively included in the development of programs to protect and restore forests, as well as share equitably in their benefits.
  • Will the private sector scale up its contributions? Finally, in the coming months and years, will we see a greater and more concerted effort by the private sector to contribute to the protection of the world’s remaining tropical forests? A number of companies have made meaningful progress in reducing their harmful impacts on forests, such as through deforestation-free commodities and supply chain risk assessments. However, much more effort and finance will be needed from the private sector deliver the financing required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C and meet the UN’s 30x30 Nature Goals.

The world’s forests remain under serious threat, and their future will be determined less by high-level commitments and pledges, and more by whether countries and companies properly value and pay for the benefits that forests — especially tropical forests — provide. The next few years need to see not only a brighter spotlight on forests, but a paradigm shift in action whereby forests are valued more highly standing than felled.