By now, the concepts of both carbon and ecological footprints are commonly known, with an ever-increasing number of cities all over the world using them to measure potential reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and broader environmental impacts. These footprints have made the concept of climate change mitigation much more accessible but remain limited in scope and are an abstract measure of impact. For example, the Global Protocol for Community-scale Greenhouse Gas Inventories only specifies scope 1 and 2 emissions, leaving out scope 3 emissions (often referred to as “value chain emissions,” as they are outside the boundary of the community). Similarly, footprints are often measured by global hectares, which leads to a lack of accountability.

There is growing acknowledgement that these footprints leave out a sizable culprit: consumption-based emissions from products made outside of cities, and therefore connected to the natural resources that provide cities goods like coffee, timber and shampoo. Many sustainability leaders agree that it is necessary to measure and mitigate the impacts of cities on tropical forests — one of the world’s most critical ecosystems — but few tools exist to help them do it.

Enter the Cities4Forests Forest Footprint for Cities. This new methodology — already piloted in 10 cities from Ecuador to Norway — is designed to help measure the area of tropical deforestation and associated CO2 emissions resulting from the consumption of commodities linked to deforestation. The methodology captures a significant percentage of cities’ total emissions and gives city governments the information needed to visualize and quantify their consumption of forest-risk commodities and resulting impacts.

Building on the methods presented in this methodology, Cities4Forests is developing an online dashboard that will ultimately allow cities to identify mitigation opportunities through policy change and public engagement. Cities can also link their footprint to existing carbon accounting and climate action plans. Through these actions, cities can invest in forest-positive supply chains that actively conserve and restore tropical forests.

Padang Sugihan Wildlife Reserve
The left side is the community land that has been planted with oil palm, and the right side is the Padang Sugihan Wildlife Reserve, Sebokor, whose large trees are no longer visible. Photo by Faizal Abdul Aziz/CIFOR

Why a Forest Footprint?

Tropical forests are critical for storing carbon, cooling the earth and generating moisture for rainfall thousands of miles away. Yet every year, 3 to 4 million hectares of tropical forests are cut down to produce commodities — like palm oil, soy, beef, wood fiber and coffee — that are consumed in cities. In fact, emissions from tropical deforestation would rank third, only behind the United States and China. The effects of deforestation have become so severe that scientists warn that the Amazon could reach a tipping point beyond which it no longer generates enough rainfall to sustain itself as a rainforest.

On the flip side, halting this destruction and implementing nature-based solutions — most significantly by halting tropical deforestation — could represent up to 30% of the global carbon mitigation needed to hold the world at 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming by 2030.

Of course, the products of deforestation in grocery stores restaurants, and pharmacies are not always obvious. The average cup of coffee does not advertise its role in the loss of montane cloud forests. Nor does palm oil, which shows up in a bewildering array of common products and under many other names, acknowledge its contribution to the destruction of an intact tropical ecosystem. In both cases, tropical forests are cleared to make room for crop production.

Fortunately, attention to the issue is growing, evident in calls and commitments for “deforestation-free” commodities that have followed the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Despite this, the world has yet to take informed and decisive action that collectively reimagines the role and reach of the city far beyond municipal boundaries. And for that, we need a new, clear picture of the impact of consumption within cities.

Consumption x Impact = Footprint

The Forest Footprint for Cities demystifies the link between cities and tropical deforestation, helping cities understand the impacts they have on forests outside their boundaries and connecting it to issues cities are already tackling. The methodology uses data on how much city residents use, eat or buy certain products, multiplies it by the amount of tropical forest lost per unit of the commodity, and calculates an estimate of total forest loss caused by the city in hectares and CO2 equivalents. These totals can then be broken down to show deforestation by broad categories of agricultural products, including beef, soy, palm, wood fiber and other crops. This disaggregation gives cities a detailed picture of their consumption of embodied deforestation — defined as deforestation (in hectares), attributable to forest replaced by a certain commodity. Cities can estimate their embodied deforestation, or the amount of deforestation associated with the production of a given commodity, as an annual average and as a range, in aggregate and on a per capita basis, and easily make comparisons between themselves and a global consumption average.

The Forest Footprint for Cities is calculated using a spreadsheet-based tool that synthesizes data from a wide range of country- and municipal-level sources. This data will be presented in an online dashboard accessible to city leaders, staff and residents alike to promote transparency of shared responsibility and link to environment and sustainability programs.

Scaling Sustainable Consumption in Cities

Ultimately, the Forest Footprint for Cities’ insights are intended as a foundation for cities to enact policies in ways that make the most sense for their populations and existing climate strategies. Each city’s footprint raises unique challenges and opportunities for action. To help cities identify their options for action, Cities4Forests created the complementary Forest Footprint Action Plan, which identifies 10 categories of action and provides case studies of how they’ve been undertaken. Importantly, the categories outlined in the action plan build on practices that are already commonplace in cities around the world.

What can cities do to reduce their forest footprint graphic

Several instances around the world illustrate how these broad ideas can turn into policy and practice.

For one, the Forest Footprint for Cities is a useful tool for zooming in on impacts, such as those generated by food systems and, in particular, food waste. Currently, food systems account for one-third of GHG emissions. Cities, such as those signatory to the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, are increasingly aware that wasted food plays a significant role in those emissions, in part by begetting the unnecessary overproduction of forest-risk commodities.

Often, forests are cleared to grow food that ends up in the trash. As an example, metropolitan London’s Forest Footprint is around 11,000 hectares of tropical deforestation annually, emitting roughly 6.1 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent. At the same time, cutting food waste could reduce the city’s embodied deforestation by a maximum of 10–25%.

Comparison of per capita city GHG emissions by sector and forest footprint emissions
Stationary energy (e.g. heating of buildings, production of electricity), transportation and waste (e.g. methane from landfills) are the sectors most commonly reported through the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories. They are compared to emissions from consumption of embodied deforestation (in green) at a per-capita level here. Photo by authors/C40 GHG Inventory
Comparison of commodity-specific footprints for Oslo, London and Vancouver

The Forest Footprint for Cities can also help cities zoom out from their current climate policy focuses and identify areas for policy development that would lead to more holistic and collective climate action. Vancouver, for example, has a Climate Emergency Action Plan with clear goals to transition away from fossil-fuel powered vehicles and buildings and help residents “live a carbon-free life.” Vancouver is also making strides in green building policy, having recently announced a future bylaw that will encourage the use of sustainably sourced wood while reducing the embodied carbon of construction.

Indeed, wood contributes to Vancouver’s Forest Footprint, but in a surprisingly smaller way than one might think when compared to other products linked to deforestation. Where Metropolitan Vancouver’s wood fibre consumption results in 293 hectares of primary tropical deforestation every year, their coffee consumption results in 61 hectares of primary tropical deforestation every year and upwards of 31,000 tCO2/yr of associated GHG emissions. For coffee, this is the approximate equivalent of 10,000 Vancouverites’ annual emissions from driving.

If Vancouverites are going to live a carbon-free life, mitigation policies must be developed that address the carbon emissions from consumed products. Other cities are already taking action in this direction. Oslo, for example, is promoting “climate-friendly diets” as part of its Climate Strategy 2030 plan. As part of that, it is using the Forest Footprint for Cities methodology to pilot a deforestation-free procurement monitoring plan focused on municipal procurement of forest-positive coffee and meat products. A similar initiative could help Vancouver shrink its footprint further.

Calling All Cities Ready to Face Their Footprint

The data that documents cities’ contributions to deforestation is out there and accessible to governments like never before. The Forest Footprint for Cities stands to be an important tool to communicate this data in a legible form and tell powerful stories for transformative change. However, it will only be as powerful as the collective influence of its users. Through the Forest Footprint for Cities, Cities4Forests can help cities move efficiently from measuring GHG emissions to enacting meaningful change.