Deforestation and ecosystem conversion: a strict EU legal framework is imperative
Global deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems is progressing alarmingly. As the world's second largest importer of tropical deforestation, the EU is called upon to act. Christine Scholl, Senior Advisor Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains at WWF Germany, explains what binding and comprehensive EU regulation should look like.
By covering one third of our planet, forests are home to 80 percent of all terrestrial plant and animal species. Especially tropical forests are of high relevance for biodiversity, as they inhabit 50 percent of all terrestrial plant and animal species, while only covering 7 percent of our planet. Besides their high value for biological diversity, forests, but also other natural ecosystems like grasslands, wetlands and savannahs provide for important ecosystem services: they are crucial for our climate as they serve as carbon storage and sink, regulate hydrological cycles and micro- and macroclimate. They filter pollutants and enhance air quality. They provide for wood and non-timber products and pharmaceutical resources. And they serve as livelihoods, cultural sites, and recreation areas.
Despite their manifold values, forests and other natural ecosystems continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate. This contributes to climate change and loss of biodiversity.
According to the WWF report "Stepping up: The continuing impact of EU consumption on nature" on the EU’s role in global trade and deforestation, the biggest threat to forests and other natural ecosystems remains the expansion of agriculture, which led to the conversion of around 5 million hectares of tropical forests into agricultural land per year between 2005 and 2017. Since agricultural commodities driving these land use changes and degradation are traded internationally, tackling the problem is not just the responsibility of producing countries.
The EU must act
The report particularly highlights the role of the EU in tropical deforestation, as the EU is the second largest importer of tropical deforestation and associated emissions after China. In 2017, the EU was responsible for 16% of deforestation associated with international trade, totalling 203,000 hectares and 116 million tonnes of CO₂. Between 2005-2017, soy, palm oil and beef were the commodities with the largest embedded tropical deforestation imported into the EU, followed by wood products, cocoa and coffee. EU demand for these commodities is also driving destruction of non-forest ecosystems, such as savannahs, grasslands and wetlands.
Despite numerous voluntary commitments by companies and governments, efforts to eliminate deforestation from commodity supply chains by 2020 have not succeeded. Against this backdrop and due to increased pressure of civil society and a group of EU governments, the EC decided to step up its action to protect the world's forests. For 2021, the EC foresees a proposal for new legislation to “minimise the risk of deforestation and forest degradation associated with products placed on the EU market”. To ensure the regulation’s impact, the following 8 requirements must be met:
- Products and commodities placed on the EU market are sustainable instead of only being considered “legal” according to the country of origin.
- The scope of EU legislation includes the conversion and degradation of natural ecosystems alongside deforestation.
- Based on objective and scientific criteria, the new legislation covers commodities and products at risk of being linked to deforestation and conversion.
- No violation of human rights is linked to the harvest or production of commodities placed on EU markets.
- Mandatory requirements are introduced for businesses and the finance sector to ensure due diligence, traceability of commodities and supply chain transparency.
- Clear definitions are provided for relevant terms and concepts used in the legislation.
- The legislation is stringently implemented and enforced across the EU Member States, with effective, proportionate, and dissuasive sanctions.
- Complementary additional measures are introduced to address the underlying causes of destruction and degradation of forests and other natural ecosystems and to support producers, smallholders, and companies to implement the new standard introduced by the legislation.
With a legislation based on these criteria, the EU would ensure that commodities and products placed on the EU market are not linked to the destruction of forests and other natural ecosystems. The EU would halt its imported deforestation and set a good example for other regions of the world to follow with similar binding measures. Furthermore, the EU would benefit businesses by creating a level-playing field that holds competitors to the same standards.
A holistic and inclusive approach to regulations
However, as the new legislation will only address the topic of deforestation and conversion, other binding requirements and supportive measures for sustainable production and responsible supply chains must be established alongside. Besides the need for a strong EU due diligence legislation and minimum criteria for sustainable production, the topics of small producers, indigenous people and food security are of particular concern.
Globally, millions of smallholders are involved in agricultural production. Therefore, incentives, tools and trainings for a deforestation and conversion-free production need to be provided. Diversification can be one of many additional measures, with dynamic agroforestry systems being an example to improve livelihoods and food security and at the same time to preserve forest and other valuable ecosystems.
As natural ecosystems provide for many important ecosystem services, for example the provision of plants, animals and fish that serve as a direct food source for local communities, deforestation and conversion affects food security directly. Furthermore, its negative impacts on regional water cycles and soil degradation affect agricultural productivity and the local supply of staple foods. In the long run, the emissions caused by deforestation and land conversion will increase the negative effects of climate change and its associated impacts on agriculture.
The halt of global deforestation and conversion is crucial for current livelihoods and future generations. As solely voluntary measures failed to protect and restore the world's forests, strong and binding measures need to be introduced by the EU. This new legislation needs to focus on forest and other natural ecosystems and needs to be accompanied by complementary additional measures, especially to support smallholders and indigenous communities and to reach sustainable food security.
Co-Authors: Ilka Petersen (Senior Programme Officer Sustainable Land Use & Communication), Alica Nagel (Advisor Standard Setting and Implementation), Kerstin Weber (Project Manager Agroecology).