Trees in rain forest from ground

New laws are best way for EU to tackle deforestation

EU action on deforestation is both ‘necessary’ and ‘achievable’. That is the conclusion of two long-awaited studies that will inform any future action on deforestation by the EU.

Putting a halt to the destruction of tropical forests is a major environmental challenge.

It is vital for the well-being of the 1.6 billion people who depend on forests for their livelihoods and crucial to biodiversity conservation. Deforestation and forest degradation also make up an estimated 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions – which is more than the entire world’s transportation sector.

The EU presents itself as a frontrunner on environmental matters, but a clear and ambitious strategy on deforestation is still lacking.

The first study focuses on the impact of palm oil production and consumption. The second looks at the feasibility of different policy options to reduce the EU’s impact on deforestation.

Converting forests for agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. The EU is one of the biggest consumers of agricultural commodities and therefore has significant leverage over international markets to bring about change with its environmental policies.

The second study looks at seven key commodities that the EU imports which contribute to deforestation in the tropics; palm oil, soy, rubber, beef, maize, cocoa and coffee. It says that addressing deforestation will be best achieved by tackling the consumption, finance and production of these commodities together.

The study also points to some of the main reasons why forests are under threat in tropical countries, like insecure land tenure, poor land-use planning and weak forest governance and law enforcement.

At the core of the study is an assessment of 20 different policy proposals that are grouped as three options for EU action:

  • An EU communication on deforestation based only on existing measures, including support to monitoring and transparency initiatives;
  • A set of new non-legislative measures, including things like encouragement for new private sector initiatives.
  • A combination of the first two including new legislative measures like a due diligence regulation for forest risk commodities – this would require companies to check the risk of illegality and/or unsustainability in their supply chains.

The feasibility study suggests that new legal tools like a due diligence regulation for forest risk commodities would have the greatest impact.

Until now, most international action on deforestation has come not from governments, but from the private sector who have committed to reducing the impact of their supply chains on deforestation.

These ‘zero-deforestation commitments’ are a step in the right direction, but they are only voluntary and they cover just a small part of all forest commodity supply chains. There is also a real lack of transparency and monitoring around these commitments, meaning companies are not being held to their word.

The study suggests that a new regulation is needed to combat deforestation. The EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme envisaged EU action on deforestation back in 2013. Five years on, these calls have still not been heard.

The Commission needs to develop new and effective measures that are underpinned by law and it could look to some of the initiatives taken by member states for inspiration.

France is developing a national strategy to address imported deforestation. It also adopted new legislation in 2017 requiring certain big companies, incorporated in France, to adopt effective due diligence plans that assess environmental and human rights risks throughout their supply chains.

While it is too early to judge the impact of this law, its provisions on transparency, assessing and mitigating risk, and penalty payments for non-compliant companies look promising.

The EU has already shown its leadership when it adopted the EU timber regulation. This law, which entered into force five years ago, requires EU companies to assess the risk of placing illegally harvested timber on the EU market.

If enforced correctly, the EUTR can motivate companies to act. But it only addresses one driver of deforestation – timber. Its due diligence rules could be a valuable model to ensure that other illegal and/or unsustainable commodities linked to deforestation do not reach European consumers.

Now is the time for the EU to show leadership and vision again to address the EU’s impact on deforestation. It is also important if the EU is to deliver on its international commitments like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris agreement.

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Anahi Martinez

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