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30 November 2020updated 16 Sep 2021 4:49pm

The government’s deforestation law may not be ambitious enough

Experts says new UK legislation to cut deforestation out of the supply chain has serious limitations.

In August 2019, the Brazilian Amazon ominously glowed with over 30,000 fires. The blazes engulfed Sao Paulo in thick black smoke, visible from space. In 2018, an estimated 30 football pitches of forest were lost every minute in the tropics alone.

With many environmentalists and scientists claiming Amazonian fires are started deliberately to clear land to produce crops and livestock to meet global demand, the UK is looking to take a stand on illegal deforestation.

Read more: Covid-19 has underscored the urgency of the climate crisis

Ahead of the delayed COP 26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, now set for November 2021, the government is proposing a new law to clean up the supply chains of products grown on forest land that has been cleared illegally.

Announcing a law to prevent businesses from using commodities linked to deforestation, Zac Goldsmith, the international environment minister, said the government intends to build a “global alliance of countries” that will work together to protect forests globally. The legislation, which is part of the Environment Bill, means large firms sourcing products such as cocoa, beef, soy, palm oil and rubber, would have to prove they had been grown in line with local laws. Those sourcing illegally grown products will face fines.

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Deforestation is estimated to contribute 11 per cent of greenhouse gases. Forests are a “carbon sink”, absorbing emissions that could tip the Earth towards catastrophic climate change. When forests are felled or burned that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Once cleared, the land becomes the site of yet more greenhouse gas emissions as it is used for producing meat, dairy and crops.

Forests are also on the frontline of another environmental challenge. Around 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity is in its forests, rainforests in particular. A UN report published last year found that nature was in “unprecedented” decline, placing ecosystems and economies at great risk. An estimated one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction within “decades”, the report said. 

The proposed deforestation law, while broadly welcomed as a step in the right direction, has been criticised for lacking ambition. In October, 21 large private companies, including McDonalds, Unilever and Tesco, called for the law to be extended to all deforested land, rather than just illegally deforested land. In a joint letter they urged the government to apply the law to medium-sized companies, currently outside the scope of the proposed legislation. The government responded by changing its definition of large companies to one based on turnover rather than the number of employees, which Tesco CEO Jason Tarry called “an important first step to creating a level playing field in the UK”.

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But some feel there are still improvements to be made. “What the government has proposed is really lacking and doesn’t go nearly far enough,” Emily Armistead, Greenpeace’s deputy campaigns director, told Spotlight. The NGO has been calling for due diligence mechanisms that look at the specific plantation a product comes from, as well as the company, or companies, that UK firms are buying from. At the moment, there are many ways for companies to skirt local laws or conceal illegal activities.

“If a company wants to procure sustainable palm oil, they will take it from a particular plantation that was deforested five, ten, 15 years ago. Meanwhile, over somewhere else, they are chopping down virgin forests,” Armistead says.

Read more: Ed Davey on the climate crisis: “we have got no time to waste”

Tackling demand for products like meat and dairy, which are disproportionately responsible for deforestation, is another factor. Armistead points out that around 90 per cent of the soy that comes into the UK is used as animal feed. “We need to massively also reduce the demand for soy by cutting out meat and dairy consumption,” she says. The production of meat and dairy contributes 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions according to UN figures, compounding the environmental impact of losing forests. One of the reasons that larger corporations are supporting this, says Armistead, is that it allows them to dodge the issue of demand.

The government says targeting illegally deforested land would cover 50 per cent of all deforestation and up to 90 per cent in key ecosystems, and that it is part of a broader package of measures under the recently announced 10-point climate plan. A Defra spokesperson said: “There is a hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government has consulted on new measures that would make it illegal for businesses in the UK to use commodities that are not grown in accordance with local laws.”

More than 63,000 people and organisations responded to the law’s consultation. Of these, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Traidcraft and Global Witness (GW), claim responsibility for 62,000 responses, following their campaigning. These organisations are in favour of the law applying to legal and illegal deforestation.

“It’s a really important initiative, and it has the potential to be genuinely ground-breaking and transformative if it goes as far as we as we would like,” says Mike Barrett, executive director of conservation and Science at WWF-UK. WWF contends that the law should extend to the destruction of other important habitats, not just deforestation.

The emphasis on adhering to “local laws” is also concerning, as some allow for deforestation to happen legally, Barrett explains. In Brazil, under its rightwing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, the government is attempting to legalise land grabs and deforestation. The number of fines issued for deforestation offences in Brazil fell by 38 per cent in his first eight months in office, the lowest rate in 20 years.

The WWF wants to see a system where no commodities on land, converted or deforested, is allowed into the supply chain after a cut-off date. “It’s perfectly possible to enforce that because we’ve got excellent satellite imagery,” Barrett says. Combined with a duty on importers to demonstrate where their products come from, this could be “game changing” in his opinion

Global Witness is advocating a “deforestation-free standard” and a due diligence regime similar to the government’s approach to tackling bribery and corruption. Jo Blackman, GW’s head of forests policy and advocacy, explains that “the proposed UK legislation should lay out a single, clear definition of deforestation and state that UK businesses cannot be complicit in forest destruction, irrespective of what local rules may allow”. That way, the onus would be on companies to demonstrate their due diligence on specific harms, such as forced evictions. As indigenous peoples bear the greatest personal risk in protecting forests, their right to prevent, or allow, companies from operating in their local area should also be included, GW says.

Read more: What Joe Biden’s win means for net zero

Blackman adds that the NGO wants to see the law applied to those who finance companies involved in deforestation too. The UK is one of the leading suppliers of credit to such companies. Britain’s banks and investors provided £5bn to six of the agribusiness companies with strongest links to the destruction of “climate critical forests” between 2013 and 2019, according to a report published by the organisation. “Without binding rules for finance, there is no incentive for UK-based banks to stop bankrolling global deforestation,” Blackman says.

The question of scope and scale will no doubt resurface as the law makes it way through parliament. Bram Büscher, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, acknowledges that the new law is encouraging, but says it does little to address “an economy that keeps putting more and more pressure on our natural resources”.

Reducing the problem in one area, such as deforestation, does not necessarily do anything to tackle the “interlocking issues” of deforestation, biodiversity, climate, the health of oceans and the pressure on freshwater. 

The ambition to reduce deforestation may be there, but the proposed law in its current form is just one step towards doing so. The UK is also just one country. The hope, however, is that others will follow suit. The EU and China are reportedly enacting measures to clean up their supply chains. A global effort could may mean fewer summers of fires, fewer extinct species, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The larger challenge of a transition to an economy that depends less on natural resources and generates fewer greenhouse gases is much greater, however. 

This article first appeared in a Spotlight supplement on energy and climate change. For the full edition, click here