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Cargill’s U.N. deforestation pledge: How it happened 

At the United Nations Climate Summit in New York, Cargill’s CEO Dave MacLennan made a much noted pledge to do more about deforestation. Here’s a report from the scene. 

September 19, 2014

Even in always bustling New York City, U.N. week in September adds a whole new level of madness. Thousands of police officers man barricades that shut down dozens of city blocks. Midtown hotels sprout the kind of metal detector lines and security checkpoints usually seen at airports. Secret service agents sniff around meeting rooms and corridors. Traffic comes to a standstill as dignitaries are ferried back and forth in blacked-out limousines with police escorts.

In the middle of all that was a team from Cargill, including CEO Dave MacLennan, who was in New York City to endorse the U.N.’s Declaration on Forests and meet with business partners. Over the course of three days, he not only spoke in front of the U.N., but also met with a procession of international business partners, political leaders and NGO representatives.

Incredible day

The centerpiece of Cargill’s showing in New York was the U.N.’s Climate Summit. Cargill was invited to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s morning press conference, and delivered a double pledge: 100 percent sustainable palm oil in the next few years and, building on that effort, practical measures to protect forests across its other agricultural supply chains around the world.

“Cargill is one of the largest agricultural commodities traders on the planet,” said MacLennan. “We sit in a unique position between suppliers and distributors, between growers and consumers of food. But with that privilege comes great responsibility. We are proud of our track record tackling deforestation. Today, I am here to say that we are going to do more.”

Two days prior, on New York’s West Side, U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon had joined thousands of marchers in demanding action to stop climate change. “The marchers asked me to bring their voices into the U.N., and that’s what I’m doing,” said Ban at the press conference. “That’s why I called this summit. There can be no plan B, because we don’t have a planet B.”

At the summit, Cargill was part of a group that presented the New York Declaration on Forests. Because they tie down heat-trapping greenhouse gasses, forests are seen as a buffer against climate change. According to one U.N. estimate, stopping deforestation could be the equivalent of taking a billion cars off the road. The endorsers of the declaration pledged to do their part in slowing down, halting and eventually reversing deforestation.

“It’s an incredible day,” MacLennan said. “Think about the opportunity we’ve had to tell our story and talk about our commitment to play our part in ending deforestation over the years ahead. We’re taking a very public position in a very public forum. I’m proud of our company.”

Not too late

The summit, a one-day gathering of dozens of political leaders, NGOs, civil society groups and private sector companies from around the world, was billed as ‘historic’ and a ‘game-changer’. Some announcements certainly raised eyebrows. Norwegian petroleum company Statoil and World Bank president Jim Kim argued for a carbon tax. A Swedish pension fund announced it would divest of its interests in fossil fuels. New York City promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

President of France François Hollande, calling climate change “the only issue that, in the long term, will threaten the planet”, was struck by what he called the mobilization of all actors. At the press conference, Hollande said he was encouraged by the private sector’s pledges, especially after the ‘debacle’ at the U.N.’s 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen, where international political leaders failed to strike a deal that would be the follow-up to the 1997 Kyoto Treaty. Hollande had a big stake in the success of the New York mini-summit; world leaders will try again in Paris next year.

Moments later, in the U.N,’s stately General Assembly room, recently restored to its full 1960s glory, U.S. president Barack Obama joined the chorus. According to Obama, America’s falling greenhouse gas emissions prove that climate change mitigation and economic growth can go together. But Obama also came with a stark warning. The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it, he said. “We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last one that can do something about it.”

Listening from the public gallery, Dave MacLennan shared his thoughts. “I don’t believe it’s too late to do something,” he said. “You can’t think that way. But I do think this is a very profound moment. When they write the history book about Cargill in another 150 years, this day will be in it. It's a special moment in our long history to say that we're not just going to be in the middle of the pack on this issue, we want to be a leader.”

The right thing to do

‘Coalitions of the unlikely’ were the theme of the day at the U.N. summit. At the official afternoon launch of the forests declaration, leaders from Golden Agri Resources (GAR), Greenpeace, Unilever and Cargill were in unison about the necessity of deforestation-free palm oil.

“It’s important to gather so many business competitors and activists in the same room,” said Dave MacLennan. “In any relationship there comes a time of conflict, but out of conflict comes growth and reinvention. The fact that this group of leaders was here, in the same place, at the same time, means we can have an impact on reducing deforestation – and that’s pretty powerful.”

In keeping with the spirit of the day, Cargill’s commitments received praise from unlikely sources. Even the Rainforest Action Network, a group that has traditionally been very critical of the company, tipped its hat. “Today’s deforestation pledge by Cargill’s CEO is a welcome commitment and marks an important new course for the company,” director Lindsey Allen told the environmental website Mongabay, adding that she expects action.

“This is hard work,” said MacLennan. “We want to do this right, and we want to do it in a smart, deliberate, economically sound manner. This is not new to us. We’ve been dealing with deforestation for ten years in Brazil and almost as long in Indonesia and Malaysia. That doesn’t mean we want to pretend that we know all the solutions right now. Every country and every supply line is unique. But we know why we’re doing this. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

Profound change

Even on a day when literally hundreds of CEOs, elected officials and opinion leaders roamed the halls of the U.N., Cargill’s announcements stood out. “It’s one of the most important things that happened here,” said Carter Roberts, the president of the World Wildlife Fund.

“You can’t solve climate change without solving deforestation,” he continued. “The solution is producing food differently. If you want to change the way we produce food, you’ve got to start with the most important players, and Cargill is right at the top of the list. So Cargill’s commitment sent a great signal that brought along a lot of other companies. Delivering on that commitment will be one of the most important things in solving this crisis.”

“I feel very fortunate to be the CEO of Cargill at a time when we’re making a profound change in the way we do business,” reacted Dave MacLennan.