Home Brussels A by-the-numbers look at how EU appetites drive deforestation

A by-the-numbers look at how EU appetites drive deforestation

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European demand for everything from chocolate to soybeans and beef make the Continent the world’s second-largest driver of tropical deforestation after China, according to a new report.

That’s likely to add ammunition to the EU’s effort to address imported deforestation with a proposal due in June.

EU imports of key commodities are tied to the loss of an estimated 3.5 million hectares of tropical forests between 2005 and 2017, according to the report prepared by the WWF and released on Wednesday. That’s responsible for emitting more than 1.8 billion tons of CO2 — about 40 percent of the EU’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

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Most of the tropical deforestation driven by the EU comes from the consumption of soy and palm oil, according to data from the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Trase program used in the report.

“When we talk about this, this is not the soy that you sprinkle as a soy sauce on your salad,” said Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove, senior forest policy officer at WWF and lead author of the report, noting that “80 percent of the soy that we use is actually used for animal feed.”

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Eight countries — Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Poland — were responsible for three-quarters of land deforestation tied to imports between 2005 and 2017, the data showed.

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The European Commission is working on an “enhanced due diligence” proposal that would require businesses to show proof that their supply chains are clean.

“We are not talking here about a ban … but ensure that the products we placed on the market do fulfil certain criteria from an environmental and human rights perspective,” said Schulmeister-Oldenhove.

The European Parliament, together with NGOs, wants the legislation to not only cover forests but also other biodiversity-rich ecosystems like wetlands and savannahs; Wednesday’s report warns that “EU demand may also be driving conversion of other less scrutinized ecosystems.”

However, that scale of EU demand means that new due diligence rules could be a driver of change, said Simon Bager, a Ph.D. candidate at the Catholic University of Leuven’s Earth and Life Institute. He gave the example of cocoa — the EU is the world’s largest chocolate producer.

“Forcing these companies to take action is something that can have cascading effects,” he said. But he warned that if the bloc was to consider import restrictions for not following the rules with a yellow and red card system similar to the EU Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing Regulation, Ghana and the Ivory Coast — which together account for 70 percent of global cocoa production — would also have leverage to potentially resist change.

‘Smart mix’

Industries back a due diligence mechanism but want to avoid the creation of new trade barriers.

“The Commission needs to acknowledge what has already been developed and incorporated,” said Frans Claassen, chairman of the board of the European Palm Oil Alliance. He wants a “smart mix” that “should follow a carrot approach, not a stick approach.”

Industry is also wary of the EU being out of sync with other countries.

“Stopping all imports would not stop deforestation in itself although Europe is a big market,” said Flora Dewar, trade and agriculture policy manager at Coceral, the European lobby for traders of cereals, feedstuffs and oils, adding: “If EU decides to stop imports, imports will go somewhere else … in the end it will not have environmental benefits.”

Current thinking in the Commission is that “the sanctioning of non-compliant economic operators would be up to the national administrative and — as the case may be — criminal justice system,” an official said last month.

Bager co-authored a recent paper analyzing 86 policy options for the EU to reduce deforestation. It found that schemes like voluntary certifications and labels have high feasibility but potentially low impact, while “more stringent regulatory and market-based policy options generally have lower feasibility.”

The best solution is a “a mix of different options” tailored to take into account conditions in different countries, he said.

Bager also noted that the EU proposal falls “between the chairs of trade, environmental, industrial and climate policy. So, there could be potential competing interests in the European Commission, as well as … between member states.”

European forests

The legislation will also have consequences within the bloc, said Fanny-Pomme Langue, secretary-general of the Confederation of European Forest Owners.

Because it is expected to cover products placed on the EU market, it means that wood and wood products produced within the bloc will fall also under the legislation. That’s creating concern about a potential overlap with the existing EU Timber Regulation, which already requires companies to do their due diligence and prove their wood is legally sourced.

“We expect clear, reliable, science-based definitions especially for forest degradation and deforestation-free products,” Langue said.

Giovanna Coi contributed to this article.

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