Why mooted law on imported deforestation is essential to salvage new EU global forest policy

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Europe’s new plan to address its role in driving rampant, often illegal deforestation through its consumption of commodities is finally ready. It has taken over 10 years to write. It runs to 21 pages. But just one short sentence really matters – and the future of the planet may hinge on how it is interpreted.

The science is clear. We have just 11 years left to prevent climate catastrophe. To do so, we are told, will require urgent, “transformative” change in all aspects of modern society.

Faced with the towering challenge of reducing the planet’s addiction to fossil fuels, desperate commentators have hit upon what they think is a simple solution: Just plant a trillion or so trees, they say, and we will still be able to have our meat and our holidays.

Aside from the fact that this is unlikely to work, the suggestion also contains a stark irony. This is that, right now, we aren’t even managing to retain the forests we already have. And all of us, every consumer on the planet, is in some small way responsible.

Our food, our fuel, our cosmetics, even our clothing is produced at the expense of forests overseas. If we are to have any chance of saving the planet, we are going to have to stop tearing out its lungs. And to do that, rich consumers like those in the EU – the world’s largest economic bloc, destination for more than a third of all the globally traded commodities associated with deforestation – will have to stop contributing to that destruction.

European citizens overwhelmingly support government action to address this problem. But it has been painfully slow in coming. Eleven years have passed since the EU first promised to act. Five were frittered away in examining the nature of the problem in minute detail. It took a further five to carry out lengthy “feasibility studies” on what might be done to address it. Meanwhile, EU imports of high-risk commodities like palm oil, beef, and soy from tropical countries have continued to rise, and deforestation to feed them has accelerated.

Action delayed

Almost every week brings another example of the terrible overseas effects of European consumption. More often than not, these cases don’t just involve deforestation. They also involve criminality and human rights abuses. Since 2016, Earthsight has shared over 200 stories from around the world regarding illegalities and abuses during the clearance of forest for agro-commodities. Many of these stories have EU links.

Earlier this month, for example, we exposed how European confectionary buyers are not only still driving deforestation in Indonesia, but also connected to the most high-profile corruption scandal in the country’s recent history. In May we discovered that one-fifth of EU beef imports are coming from JBS, a notorious Brazilian firm repeatedly found guilty of helping drive illegal deforestation, not to mention fined billions for rampant bribery. The products in both cases are found on supermarket shelves across the continent.

On July 23, the European Commission finally published its Communication on “Stepping Up EU Action to Protect the World’s Forests.” Sadly, given how long it took, it is hard not to be disappointed. The bulk of the plan is made up of wishy-washy support for voluntary action by companies. Yet the idea that the private sector can be relied upon to solve this problem by itself has been comprehensively debunked. The spate of highly-publicized “zero deforestation” promises by giant agricultural and consumer goods firms some years ago have not been kept.

On the very day the EU plan was published, Earthsight exposed yet another case of the failure of self-regulation. We uncovered fresh evidence of how a company involved in clearing intact forest in Indonesia to create the world’s largest palm plantation has been able to retain its membership in a key industry sustainability assurance body. This despite the shocking findings of Earthsight’s in-depth investigation last year with Mongabay, involving permits issued from behind bars, true owners hidden behind nominees or offshore shell companies, and indigenous landowners beaten into submission.

Cattle deforestation in Brazil. Courtesy of Greenpeace / Daniel Beltrá.

A chink of light

However, buried in a text filled with uninspiring promises to do such things as “encourage” good practices and “develop guidelines,” there are a handful of words that might just salvage something worthwhile. The text says that the Commission will consider “additional demand side regulatory … measures [to] minimise the risk of deforestation and forest degradation associated with commodity imports in the EU.” Almost unanimous support for regulation from environment groups – not to mention the general public – appears to have led to this late inclusion.

A great deal now hangs on this short sentence. Rapidly and meaningfully acted on, it could have a big impact. Kicked into the long grass, it is likely to prove the death knell for any chance that deforestation can be halted before it is too late.

To understand both possible futures, it is worth considering the EU’s efforts to address consumption of illegal timber. In 2003, very similar language was included in the EU’s illegal logging action plan. On that occasion, it was over 10 years before legislation took effect. If EU legislation on other commodities is to be worthwhile, it must happen faster. Options need to be considered in months rather than years. Risks must be taken.

More positively, the case of illegal logging shows how positive strong EU leadership can be. Its legislation on timber inspired similar laws in other major markets. Its strong, long-term partnerships with affected producer countries resulted in tough new policies being implemented that affect all exports, not just those to Europe. Crucially, those bilateral relationships have involved an access-to-market trade “stick,” and not just an aid “carrot.”

The EU’s laws on timber pioneered a uniquely powerful approach to addressing the role of rich consuming countries in driving environmental and human rights violations overseas through their purchases. As a result they have been much more effective than EU and US laws relating to consumption of conflict resources or products of slave labor. To be effective, new laws relating to deforestation must learn these lessons. Any deforestation regulation must be broad in scope, with concrete trade-related measures, and meaningful penalties. A law requiring larger companies to publicly report on their voluntary efforts, on the other hand, would be next to useless.

A test

What path is now followed will be a crucial test of the climate credentials of the newly elected bureaucrats in Brussels. On the face of it, the conditions are good. After an unexpected surge at the recent elections, Green politicians have a stronger voice in Europe than ever before. The new European Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, has called addressing climate change “the greatest responsibility and opportunity of our times.”

But this is going to be far from easy, and the EU is unlikely to do the right thing without a lot of encouragement. Just getting the possibility of regulation mentioned in this plan was quite a battle. It could have been worse. Earlier this year, it was looking like regulation wasn’t even going to be considered. The next step – quickly turning this short sentence into new, meaningful laws – will be much harder.

Forest advocates and forest peoples will lead that fight. But if they are to be successful, they will need support from the giant consumer goods and agri-commodity firms, whose lobbying power dwarfs theirs. Some such firms have already come out in favour of new laws. But, on the whole, they have remained quiet. Rather than look to the EU plan as an opportunity to subsidize their failing voluntary efforts with taxpayers’ cash – or, worse still, seek to block new laws – these firms must throw their huge weight behind the effort for regulation.

Anything less, the planet will cook, and their names will be forever burned into history as among those most responsible.

Image on homepage courtesy of Creative Commons. This article also appeared in Mongabay